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The Other Side

Listen to the audio version here!

Rewind

Sunday we were on our way home from the mountains and the song “The Other Side” from The Greatest Showman came on our playlist. Before I knew it, my wife and kids were singing every word. If you have not seen the movie, I highly, highly recommend it. Inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum’s creation of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the late 1800s, it is a musical with several big stars (including Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron). We saw it in the theater, twice, and immediately bought it on Amazon when it became available.

What I love and appreciate about the movie is Barnum’s (Jackman) incredible imagination to dream up a circus; his creativity and perseverance in bringing his vision to life; and his ability to disregard his naysayers who told him it would not be successful. In addition to finding and recruiting interesting acts and attractions and securing extensive funding for the show, one of his biggest challenges was bringing credibility to the circus. Barnum was obsessed with convincing the upper class in New York, who normally spent their money on theatre or opera, that this too was worthy of their attention and investment.

“The Other Side” is a fast-paced negotiation between Barnum and Phillip Carlyle (Efron), a wealthy New York aristocrat and playwright. In the song, Barnum is attempting to convince the young, popular, conventionally established Carlyle to take a risk and become his business partner. The song, like the movie itself, is about having the vision to see something new and different, but also the faith and courage to act on it.

Pause

Many colleges open their applications on August 1. If you are a senior, I am guessing you already created at least one application account and may have also started writing your college essays. It is also likely you are scheduled to take or re-take the SAT or ACT in the fall. I would not doubt you took time this summer to visit a college… or 18, and questions from family, friends, coaches, and neighbors like “where are you applying to college?” have become ubiquitous. I have bad news for you: it gets worse. Thanks for reading and have a great day. Kidding!

Understandably, there are some elements of the college admission process many students do not find enjoyable: keeping track of the dates and deadlines for applications, scholarships and financial aid; looking deep into your soul to introspectively articulate your passion (in 300 words or less!); taking seemingly endless standardized tests in sterile environments (some beginning at a God-forsaken hour on Saturday); reading blogs that simply won’t come to the point… the list goes on.  Lest (no longer a word on the SAT) we forget, all of that is just getting to the point of submitting your applications. We have not even delved into some of the stress around waiting endless months for decisions, or the frustration of being deferred admission, or the dismay of being denied by your dream school. And don’t even get me started on the vortex that is the waitlist. Feeling better yet?

I get it. There is nothing I can say, write, or sing that is going to eradicate moments of uncertainty or consternation in the year ahead. What I can offer you is perspective. I can offer you a vision. I can help you see “The Other Side.”

Right here, right now 
I put the offer out
I don’t want to chase you down 

I know you see it
You run with me
And I can cut you free
Out of the treachery and walls you keep in
So trade that typical for something colorful
And if it’s crazy, live a little crazy
You can play it sensible, a king of conventional
Or you can risk it all and see

Track 1- The Other Side

Monday, in an effort to memorize the lyrics, I was listening to “The Other Side” as I walked from the train station. It was a perfectly clear day with low humidity and temperatures around 70. In late July in Atlanta, you cannot ask for better conditions. Just as I got onto campus, I saw a couple of first-year summer students walking into the dining hall together. They were laughing and smiling.  I recognized one of the guys in the group because I met with him at an admitted student program in the spring. At the time he told me Tech was not his first choice, but he would come here if he did not get admitted to…. names aren’t important, right? In late April, he emailed me to say he had not been offered admission to the other place and had decided to become a Yellow Jacket. Three months later (basically to the day) here he was on campus with a smile on his face, a few new friends around him, and enjoying a perfect summer morning.

Don’t you wanna get away from the same old part you gotta play
‘Cause I got what you need
So come with me and take the ride
It’ll take you to the other side

Track 2- The Other Side, Remix

A few years ago I was helping students move into residence halls. As I entered the building I saw a father out of the corner of my eye I had met before. I remembered him clearly because a few years earlier he had been in the office yelling at me for denying his son’s admission. I put the box down in the room of the student I was helping, wished her a good year, and then wiped the sweat from my brow. While the box was heavy and I had just basically sprinted up two flights of stairs, the perspiration was from that memory. Heading back out the front door (side door was locked) I scanned the lawn. Whew! He was gone. Then… a hand on my shoulder. “Oh… Hi. How are you?” I managed to say in feigned surprise. After talking for a few minutes, his wife came up with their two sons. Unbeknownst (also no longer on SAT) to me, the younger brother had been admitted to Tech and was starting his first year. The older son explained he had chosen a smaller school and was now a rising senior majoring in business. “Could not have been a better choice,” the father added, and then went on to proudly describe his son’s summer internship and added he already had a job offer waiting upon graduation.

‘Cause you can do like you do
Or you can do like me
Stay in the cage, or you’ll finally take the key
Oh, damn! Suddenly you’re free to fly
It’ll take you to the other side

Track 3- The Other Side, Re-remix

Each summer we have orientation for new students. This year we’ve already held six and still have two more to go. I love these days on campus because they are filled with balloons, loud music, skits, banners, cheering orientation leaders, smiling students, and proud parents. Go check out the social media accounts of a few college and university orientations or new student programs. You’ll love seeing the pictures, images, and videos that demonstrate a real sense of community, belonging, and excitement.

In all that happiness, remember that three, six, and nine months prior, none of that excitement was there. Those same smiling faces were grimaces as they attempted to “craft an essay” or remember which password they had selected for the Common Application. Was it “12^gold!!”or “emojisRpasswords2~@?”

You would finally live a little, finally laugh a little
Just let me give you the freedom to dream and it’ll
Wake you up and cure your aching
Take your walls and start ’em breaking
Now that’s a deal that seems worth taking
But I guess I’ll leave that up to you

Play

So here you sit. Senior year is about to start. After nearly 20 years of watching this cycle repeat itself, here is what I know: there are no guarantees in college admission and financial aid.  Where you will end up is absolutely uncertain. Unsettling? It shouldn’t be. The mystery of where is the adventure of the college admission experience (and some would say it’s the adventure of life in general).

Bottom line: there is no “dream” college. Instead, there is just a dream…a vision. It is one of smiles, balloons, friends, celebration, a new home, excitement, aka “The Other Side.” Don’t forget that as you are applying to colleges. When you get deferred admission, remember the students I described walking into the dining hall. When you don’t get a scholarship, envision the older son who went elsewhere and ended up exactly where he was meant to be. When you don’t get into your first choice school, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the first step to The Other Side.  Balloons, smiles, exuberance. That is what awaits you. A year from now you’ll be there. Trust me.

Forget the cage, ’cause we know how to make the key
Oh, damn! Suddenly we’re free to fly
We’re going to the other side

Bonus Track

I still may not know all the lyrics but I do know the truth. There are many times in life that we need to be reminded to slow down, remain calm, and dream of The Other Side.  I hope you’ll strive to recognize those moments not only in your own life but in those of your friends and family members too. Take the time to encourage them; to come around them; to describe with optimism and confidence the better days that lie ahead.  Like Barnum and Carlyle, it will make the celebration when you arrive there together that much sweeter.

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Girls Night!

Listen to the audio version here!

A couple of weeks ago I told you listening is “the one thing you can do” when it comes to college admission. The one thing you completely control. After that I got some really encouraging and humorous emails from fellow wallet-leavers (and those who love them) around the country. It is good to know I am not alone. I also got one note that said, “What they really need is just to know what admission people really want.” Challenge accepted!

You could call what I’m about to share the magic bullet; the linchpin, the Holy Grail. Or you could just call it “the one thing that admission people want.” It is what we hope you will do with your time outside the classroom. It is the type of person we want on our campuses. It is how we hope you’ll go about choosing your academic path through high school. And it’s also the best way to navigate the admission experience. For those of you who have been reading this blog since it started three years ago, I hope you were a freshman then, because your patience is finally paying off—just in time for this pivotal trade secret.

But since you have waited this long, you can wait a few paragraphs more, right?

Not everything that can be counted counts…

Unfortunately, too often the college admission experience begins with, and is plagued by, a mentality of “what do I have to do?” Here’s how this plays out:

Q: In your presentation, you showed your middle 50% score ranges. (As they Google test-prep programs) So if I get 60 points higher, I will have a better chance, right?

Q: Your first-year profile shows that most students entering have taken around nine or 10 AP, IB or Dual Enrollment courses. Which other class should I add to my schedule?

Q: So I was reading about the value you place on extra-curricular involvement, contribution to community, and Progress and Service. Which is better: two years of ultimate Frisbee, or three years of Beta Club?

Year 1

The other night my wife and I watched the movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun with our kids. As it started, my wife said, “I haven’t seen this since our girls’ nights,” and then looked at me. Confused, so did both our kids. Let me explain.

When Amy and I first moved to Atlanta, she did not know anyone in the city. No friends, no job—just a new husband…me. She was planning on getting her master’s in physical therapy, but had a year to work on the pre-requisites, study for the GRE, establish residency, make some money to pay for the program, and adjust to a new town (and husband).

I know what you’re thinking: that must have been rough. And you’re right.  I already had a job and was originally from Atlanta. Several of my good friends from college lived here as well, so I was plugged in and fairly busy. In those first few months, Amy tried one job and hated it. Knowing everything was short-term with school starting the next fall, she took another job, and then another (to clarify, she did not work three jobs simultaneously).

We would go to dinner or watch a game or just sit on our porch, and she’d talk about how difficult it was not having close friends or family in town, like she did in California and North Carolina. Finally, one night I decided I had to take a more radical approach to cheering her up. I had to do something unexpected—something just for her.

We started “girls’ nights” once a month. I had long argued that I was not physically built to power walk the way I knew she and some of her friends could. I remember seeing them go at an incredible clip for what seemed like hours, chatting and enjoying time together. So one night we power walked. Two hours, just walking and talking all through the neighborhood(s). Admittedly, I looked pretty awkward, and at times I struggled to keep up, but it was absolutely worth the effort for the joy it brought her. One night dinner was a just a giant salad and we spent the evening reading a book aloud to each other. And yes, one night we did facial masks and watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun (I’m telling you, it’s a must see!).

Not everything that counts can be counted…

So what’s the perfect class schedule, the right test score, the magic combination of sports, work, and school leadership? What is it that admission people really want? The answer is simple: we want Girls’ Nights!

  • Power Walks. We’d love for you to choose a rigorous curriculum solely for the love of learning and expanding your knowledge (more on love in the next point). That is why you so often hear the buzz phrase “intellectual curiosity.” What admission people really want to see is you power walking through your curriculum in high school. Yes—it means there will be times you are not totally comfortable. There will be some classes where you are not a complete natural and you have to work harder than some classmates to keep up or to excel. But if power walking is your mindset, you’ll know when the load is appropriately challenging versus absolutely overwhelming. You will be more appreciative of your teachers; more likely to seek help when you need it and give help when you are able; less focused on the grade and more on the content; and ultimately you’ll end up far more prepared when you arrive at college.
  • Love. We want you to volunteer at a hospital or master a language or earn your black belt not because it will look good or separate you from other applicants, but because it’s a genuine interest, an opportunity to grow, a passion, a love. If you hate tennis, quit. If you are miserable eating the bread in French Club, pack up your things and leave. Au revoir. “Which is better: two years of ultimate Frisbee, or three years of Beta Club?” Neither. Trust me—we are not making those kinds of delineations. Your sanity, enjoyment, and time are the priority. Love does not keep records or count accomplishments or track time. What do admission people want? We want to attract applicants and enroll students who are looking to build others up, rather than one up or edge others out. We are looking for future graduates who will invest deeply in people, communities, clubs, sports, and jobs—whether or not there is a picture in a yearbook or a line on an application.

The Perfect Night

There is no perfect or right girls’ night, just like there is no perfect or right college. Amy loved those evenings not because they were ideas from a Top 10 list or what someone else said would be best. She loved them because they were perfect and right for her. Some people are not big salad fans. I get it. If you don’t like humidity and roads that start with “Peach,” avoid Atlanta for college.

What do admission people want? We want you to explore all your options and to honestly consider and intentionally choose your best fit when you apply to college. We want you to be mindful that this is a deeply personal choice that is authentically yours, so you’ll be confident when you arrive at your university.

Utopian? Pollyanna? Perhaps, but I’m okay with that. Granted, you are talking to someone who has now read nearly every Nicholas Sparks novel aloud and unashamedly endorses early Sarah Jessica Parker. But this is about you, not me. I am just doing what was asked– telling you what admission people want: Girls Nights!

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Spring Cleaning

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission (West Coast) Ashley Brookshire to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

It’s a time to close the door on winter and set your sights on the sunny days to come. Spring cleaning allows me to catch my breath, get re-organized, and look forward to the excitement of warm weather and summer travel. It’s not without its burden – I don’t particularly enjoy scrubbing baseboards and emptying closets – but I do love the relief of having the work done and updated systems set to keep my home a place of rest and relaxation.

When I think about spring cleaning, I often think of my house. In reality, there are many aspects of my life that could use this kind of attention. My finances, work, and personal inbox – amongst many other areas – can use the renewed TLC this time of year brings.

As rising seniors looking ahead to the college application process next year, make time to conduct some spring cleaning of your own. Here are some good places to start:

New You

If you haven’t already noticed, colleges send a lot of emails. A LOT. One way to keep your personal or school email inbox manageable over the course of the upcoming year is to create a separate email address for your college communications. Something simple (and appropriate) like myname@gmail.com allows you to segment this portion of your life for the next few months and isolate the emails you’ll receive daily (okay, probably hourly) from the rest of the messages you’re balancing for school, work, clubs, etc.

Unsubscribe

There are tons of ways you can start receiving communication from colleges. Outside of actually signing up on a college’s website to receive more information, if you’ve taken the SAT or ACT, visited a college campus, attended a college rep presentation at your high school, are related to a passionate alumnus who knows your email address and birthdate, or breathed in the vicinity of a college fair table, you could find yourself on a college’s contact list.

As you begin to explore your college options, you’ll likely discover some of the 4,000+ colleges in the US are not a great fit for you (that’s a good thing!). As you discover what you’re most passionate about in a college experience, you’ll begin to identify schools that don’t quite match what you’re looking for. Your best friend should become the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of each email you receive. As you begin to narrow the list of schools in which you are most interested, it’s time to triage your inbox. You don’t want the one really important email from a university you’d love to attend to be accidentally missed in an inbox full of messages from colleges you are no longer considering.

Compile Your Thoughts and Research

As you start to look at different colleges and programs, there are an infinite number of data points to consider. Take time this summer to turn messy notes and thoughts into a useful resource. A Google Doc, Excel spreadsheet, or PowerPoint can be key in helping you capture all of the information from your college search and turn it into a handy tool. Helpful items to represent on your document include important deadlines (both for admission and financial aid), programs aligning with your personal and professional interests, qualities about the school that excite you, any red flags for you, and the contact information of your admission representative. Remember, this is a resource for you, so make sure it’s set up in a way that best captures what matters most to you! You’ll have enough on your plate as a senior in the fall – use this time to set up a system that keeps you organized and all of the information you’ve gathered in an accessible format.

As the school year winds down and you head into summer, make sure you’re taking on a few tasks to set you up for success this fall. Not all spring cleaning takes place in cobb-webbed corners or under beds, so take some time to de-clutter and get organized.

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Would You Rather…?

Would You Rather…? Yep. This question was a big part of the Olympic viewing experience at our house.

  1.  Would you rather have no training and compete in the Skeleton OR Ski Jump? Personally, I’m going Skeleton all the way here. Sure, it would be moderately terrifying to go that fast, but worst case you roll off (careful for those blades on the dismount) and walk to the finish line. Meanwhile, with Ski Jump, I just see no way I’m walking away with less than two broken bones.
  2.  Would you rather be in Ice Dancing OR Curling? Our kids are split here. Our son is adamant that he’d never wear that costume and dance with a girl. (In this case, I am translating “never” as “check back when I am 16.”) Our daughter adamantly argues that Curling is the most boring thing she’s ever seen. “Is this still on?” “Sweeping is not for fun,” and my personal favorite, “He looks like our neighbor.” Hard to argue.

I didn’t pose this one but it did go through my head (because this is the kind of thing that does): Would you rather participate in a sport that has a score/time to win OR one that is judged? I can see both sides here. You’ve trained for four years (some would argue a lifetime). You’ve risen early, worked, sweated, and bled. You’ve sacrificed your time and sleep and diet and even personal relationships to get to this point.  It makes sense that you might want a very objective, neutral, quantifiable measure to differentiate you from the other competitors. And if you compete in one of those sports, that’s exactly what you get. Granted, it must have been heart-breaking for the US Luge Team not to medal when they finished .57 seconds from Gold and .103 from stepping onto the podium for a Bronze, but they signed up for it.  And clearly the German bobsledders who finished upside down were not concerned about impressing any judges on route to their Gold medal. They were the fastest. Period.

In Freestyle Skiing or Figure Skating it is all about the difficulty of your program, the execution of your routine, and your style (could argue personality) that you exhibit to the judges. Frankly, as a native southerner, I was just impressed when someone made it down the hill, landed a jump, or managed not to fall during a routine.  As I watched some of these events, the eventual medalists were not always the athletes I thought were the best from the outside looking in. Of course, I was not privy to all of the metrics or aspects they were looking for to make those determinations. Still, I could see how after all of those practice sessions and injuries that having a group of judges deduct or reward points based on the slightest angle of a skate or hand position on a snowboard would be maddening. And yet, it’s not like they were racing. They were not expecting their results or medal to come from time or speed. They knew that there would be a level of subjectivity leading to or from the medal stand.

So many lessons to be drawn from Olympians about perseverance, dedication, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. but I am going to stay in my lane and focus on how this applies to college admission.

Let’s start with this.  Most schools make decisions based on quantifiable metrics. Of the four thousand post-secondary options in our country (with over 2000 four-year colleges), the average admit rate is 65% (See page 3). In the vast majority of schools nationally, they have space available for talented students like you, and they are going to use your GPA and test scores to make those decisions.  These are publicly available formulas that are clearly outlined on their sites, in publications, and in presentations. In most cases, these schools have admit rates over 50% and they have determined that if you are performing a certain level in high school, you will be academically successful on their campus. At least one of these schools should be on your list. The good news is that you will absolutely find more than a few where: you will be admitted; you will find a lifelong friend; you will find a professor who will mentor you and set you up for success in graduate school or as you launch into a career; you could take advantage of phenomenal internships, study abroad opportunities; you can afford and may even provide you with scholarships as well.

Like an Olympic athlete competing in a sport that is evaluated by people, here are some things you should know if you are applying to a highly selective college that has very few spaces and yet a pool of incredibly accomplished students.

  • Numbers are not going to be the deciding factor. Yes, we ask for test scores. We look at them and consider them, but at Georgia Tech this year two of every three applicants had a 1400+ SAT/ 30+ ACT. The College Board and ACT research clearly demonstrates that using “cut scores” (i.e. drawing an arbitrary line between say a 1360 and a 1370 is a misuse or abuse of tests). Our own campus specific research verifies this as well. Testing is far less indicative of academic success on our campus than rigor of curriculum and performance in classes. This is why students appealing a denial at a highly selective institution because they have a 1500 SAT has no merit. This is not short track racing. We never said it was going to be about your testing- and our decision only demonstrates that we were transparent here.
  •  Strength of program matters. If you watched any of the Snowboarding or Aerial or Figure Skating, you heard the announcers talking at length about difficulty of program. An athlete who attempts and converts a quadruple salchow or double lutz or a Triple Lindy is rewarded for that accomplishment, skill, and ability at a higher level than a competitor who hedges their difficulty in order to avoid a fall or mistake. In admission committee and file review, we do the same thing. This is why colleges that have a difficult curriculum (not always directly correlative to admit rate or rankings) also value your course choice in high school. The bottom line is that a student from the same high school, i.e. has similar access to courses, who takes AB Calculus and Physics II and does well is a better fit for our Civil Engineering program than a student who has opts instead for Pre-Calculus and AP Psychology.  You don’t see the Olympic judges walking out of the arena questioning their decision to place value on this element, and we do not either. Rigor matters. 

 

 

 

 

  • Paper vs. Practice. “How could you deny my son? He has all A’s.” I understand, sir. However, since his school adds extra points for rigorous courses, an A can range from 90 to well over 100. A 91 and a 103 are not the same… and we are going to differentiate. This year we have a school that sent us nearly 200 applications. Of those 160 had above a 90, i.e. an A average. Now we can go round and round all day about the chicken and the egg here on grade inflation just like we can try to grapple with how Russia’s Alexander Krushelnitsky failed a doping test for Curling, but that seems counterproductive. Highly selective schools, just like Olympic committees, are going to differentiate great from outstanding.
  •  Style matters. Yes, we look at the technical as well as the full program. Review includes essays, interviews, and opportunities for you to tell us what you do outside the classroom. Why? Because you will not just be a student on campus, you will be a contributing citizen. Ultimately, once you enroll and graduate, you will be an ambassador. Judges give style points. Admission committees do as well. We care where you are from. We are listening for your voice. We want to know how you have impacted and influenced your community. We are counting on your counselors and teachers in their recommendations to build context around a GPA or a test score or an IB diploma. And because all of this is plays out in a holistic admission decision, the student with the highest test score or most APs or who sits at the top of a spreadsheet on a sorted GPA column is not necessarily the gold medal winner. Nobody is holding a stopwatch in admissions committee.
  • It cuts both ways. The hard truth of selective college admission is that it is a very human process. The upside? You’re not being sorted out based on GPA or test score alone. We are looking in depth at school curriculum, grade trends, course choice, performance, as well as who you are, who you want to be, how you impact others, and how you will match with our culture and mission. The downside? We are human. Read: judgment calls, conversations in committee, subjective decisions based on institutional priorities. Not gold, silver or bronze… grey.

Ultimately, if you are choosing to apply to a highly-selective university, you have to submit your application with the mentality of an Olympian. The competition will be stiff and there is no guarantee that you “end up on the podium.” Trust your training. You have prepared well. You have worked hard. Watch the closing ceremonies this weekend. Whether an athlete has a medal around their neck or not, they will walk through that stadium with incredible pride in their accomplishments, as well as confidence and hope for the future. If you are a senior this spring, regardless of admission outcomes, this is how you should be walking the halls each day and ultimately across the stage at graduation. Confidence and hope, my friends. Your future is bright.

Sneaky Teachings from the Bench Lady

One of the first people I met when I came to Georgia Tech as an admission counselor was Robin Wilburn, or “Ms. Robin” as we all call her. Back then we did not read applications by geographic territory but rather by alphabet. So while I traveled to recruit students in various parts of Georgia and other states, Ms. Robin and I were responsible for ensuring all applicants with last names of A-C were complete, reviewed and ready for a decision. We agreed early on we would be the best team—the most efficient, the most accurate, and the most accessible to families and students with questions.  She took our pact seriously. Depending on the situation, Ms. Robin would call me “Mr. Clark” or “Boo” or just “you,” as in “You better get in here!”

I call Ms. Robin a “sneaky teacher,” because you have to really listen, watch, and wait on her wisdom. I sat down to chat with her this week and reflect as she just completed her 25th year at Tech. In our 30 minute conversation, I was again reminded of how much she has to teach. Outside of admission, many know Ms. Robin as “The Bench Lady.” Whether it be first thing in the morning, while taking a break around lunch, or waiting for her son, Andre, to pick her up in the evening, you can count on seeing her on one of the benches around our building.

So what are you doing while you’re sitting there?

“Mainly praying. Just getting my head together so I can be a blessing. I always say, ‘let your light so shine!’ And I just sit on the bench sometimes to say good morning or ask people about their day.”

I told you she’s special. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, and a few gems for you to learn from as well.

What brought you to Tech and why have you stayed here?

“I began as a Tech Temp. For seven months I basically just filled envelopes. Then I was sent to Tech Tower (the most quintessential building on campus).” (It’s important to note she still has a sense of awe and reverence when she reminisces about this. While Robin grew up less than three miles from Tech, she shared that people in her neighborhood did not feel they belonged. Tech was perceived as elitist, pretentious, and “not for us.” She said the 1996 Olympics changed that perception. Somehow by opening our campus and city to the world, we also opened it to our own city as well.)  “I worked calculating GPAs—200 a day. Most days we’d either skip lunch or work through it. The philosophy was ‘Get ‘er done,’ which you still hear me say today. But I’ve stayed because I love the vision. I love we are reaching more students and diversifying.  Every year we get better, and you know, we never stay still.”

How is the work different today than it was when you started? 

“We gather information faster and there is less human error. But there is less contact with students too because of the technology—and I miss that. I used to see a lot more walk-ins, take more calls from students, and speak with counselors on the phone more often. I love the freshmen. Love seeing them come in young and then grow and learn and get their degree. I just love watching them grow.” (Note: that was three “loves” in three sentences. She’s beaming at this point.) “You know I love the students who work for us. I get to become mama or auntie. Just the pride of seeing them grow up… and plus, they keep me young and lively.”

You’ve seen so many students come as first-years and then graduate. What advice would you give a student about to go to college?

“If you have the drive, you can do it! But you’re going to have to do the work. Our students are always shooting for that A.  But they need a lot of encouraging. They may act like they’ve got it all together but they can really hurt too. I’ve seen it happen. We work here because we love them. But they don’t always tell us how we can help. So we have to really get to know them, to stop and listen, so they trust us.”

What have you most enjoyed about the people you’ve worked with on campus?

“No matter who it’s been, “(and she rattles off about ten folks, including several former VPs and Directors) “they always pushed me to my potential. It’s never been about title here or what degree you have. They entrusted me with important work and exposed me to people around our division and around campus. Basically pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to feel like part of a team. That’s what I love—being part of a team. I love being around people who make me better. And that’s always been what I’ve found here. The top of the top. These people don’t play, Mr. Clark. You know that.”

So how can you take these thoughts and apply them to your journey as a student, and as a person?

“Let your light so shine.”

We lead busy lives. You take tough classes requiring you to study at night and on the weekends. You put significant time in with your team or club or job (or in some cases all three)—in addition to the basics like friends, family, eating, sleeping. You know…life. And I’m here to tell you: it never slows down. It won’t slow down in college or grad school or in your first job or once you have a family. You have to slow it down. It requires being intentional, and being mindful of what makes life full—not what fills your life. Slowing down is so much easier said than done (and for me, so much easier written than lived). Ms. Robin gets it. She sits. She prays. She “gets her head right.” And doing those things allows her to meet new people, to invite them to sit, share and be encouraged. She’s available—and her availability brings joy not only to her life but to the lives of those who know her. The holidays are here. Rather than spinning through them, I hope you’ll sit through them.

“Get er done.”

200 transcripts a day! If you’ve ever tried to locate grades on the variety of transcripts a school like Tech receives, you’ll know that is fast! And besides fast, Ms. Robin has always been incredibly accurate. She takes ineffable pride in her work being excellent, even if it means working through lunch, taking files home, or being the first in the office. It’s how she’s made, and it’s the very nature of who she is. Never, and I mean that literally, has Robin boasted about working harder than anyone else. Being a part of the team, buying into the vision, reaching more students—those goals are what drive her. Not recognition. In fact, it took me a few weeks to get her to agree to be interviewed! Only after her pastor encouraged her did she agree to collaborate on this project. She’s humble, consistent, faithful, and selfless. When you encounter someone who embodies that type of integrity, it’s inspiring and challenging.

I have no doubt you are bound for success. And with your success may come a platform and an amplified voice. When you achieve and excel; when you reach your goals in high school, college, or beyond, I hope you’ll remember our Bench Lady. Quiet confidence, relentless pursuit of excellence, and always the perspective that others helped you get there—you are a small part of something much bigger. I think fundamentally we all find fulfillment and immeasurable satisfaction when we realize these moments in life.

You belong here.

Ms. Robin has always been conscious of not having a college degree. She brought it up in our discussion, and many times through the years she’s expressed some regret and concern about this fact. She said she’s thankful that at Tech the focus has not been on title or pedigree, but consistently, “Can you do the work?” She commented our office has always modeled that title does not matter (which is why, even though I’m the Director now, she’ll still yell down the hallway, “Hey, you. Get in here!”). The imposter syndrome is a real thing on college campuses.

Ironically, the day after I interviewed Ms. Robin I flew to Houston to talk to Computer Science deans and professors from Top 10 programs about enrolling more under-represented students in CS PhD programs. These people not only hold doctorates, they create more doctorates. They are expanding the base human knowledge. Me? I went to public high school and college. I slept on the couch the night before. “Who am I to give them advice?” went through my head multiple times on the plane and even during the talk.

Every year our first-year students say they have a moment in class or in the middle of a conversation when they ask themselves, “Am I good enough, and smart enough to be here?” Our seniors constantly say, “I would not get in if I applied these days.” Inevitably, you’ll have some doubts. Maybe it will be because of where you are from, or what your parents do, or what you know you made on the SAT/ACT. But don’t let these thoughts keep you from applying to a certain college. Don’t let these thoughts diminish your confidence at a college visit, or during orientation, or in your first semester at college.

You were admitted. We did not make a mistake. Character, work ethic, how you treat others, and your determination—these are the traits that helped you stand out in an admission process, and will differentiate you in the future as well.

Ms. Robin got me through my talk. Before I walked in the room, I sat down, took a deep breath, pictured her on the bench and “got my head right.”

“Get ‘er done!”

“Let your light so shine!”

“You belong here.”

Told you she was a sneaky teacher.

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