Four Key Lessons of a Lifetime

Jerry Hitt (right) pictured with Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Faussemagne in 2010. Photo courtesy: GT Alumni Magazine
Jerry Hitt (right) pictured with Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Faussemagne in 2010.
Photo courtesy: GT Alumni Magazine

Even though he was several decades older than me, Jerry Hitt was my friend. Over the years, we developed a special bond. Jerry started working in undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech in the 1960s and continued to work full-time at the Institute until the 1990s. When I met him, he was still reading applications seasonally in a Director of Admissions Emeritus role.

Jerry died just before Thanksgiving, so the past week has been bittersweet. His health had declined over the last few years and his memory faded. He had started to tell the same few stories but still with great passion and detail.  What never diminished was his zeal for life and his unrivaled love for Georgia Tech.

I learned many lessons from Jerry, but these four really stick out to me.

1) Keep it simple

We quickly hit it off. Jerry loved to talk about simpler times. No cell phones, no email, no online admission decisions. He would spin yarns about faculty versus  staff softball games, tell stories about presidents gone by, or recount how Georgia Tech came to use a holistic admission process. Whether in the hallway, on the golf course at Bobby Jones (where he served as a starter) or over a meal, he always helped me to slow down and appreciate how we got to where we are as an institution.

2) Seek Perspective & Enjoy Life

He always encouraged me as director to build trust and relationships on campus, and to walk around rather than relying too much on phone calls or email (pretty sure he did not ever learn to text…). He always pointed me back to the things that matter the most: spending time with family, really listening to students, faculty and staff needs and dreams, and generally enjoying life.

3) Serve others

I’ve traveled all over the country for Tech, and never go more than a few months without an alum mentioning Jerry. They talk about how he gave them a chance by admitting them and in doing so changed their life. Or I will run into someone that worked with Jerry and they ask about him with great fondness and respect.  He was just one of those people– he listened well, he liked to laugh, and he treated people sincerely.

4) Express Appreciation

If you’re applying to college, there is no question that there are a few people who have given you that vision and provided you with opportunities and encouragement. It is easy to get caught up in completing essays, making sure all of your recommendation letters have been submitted, and taking exams.  Jerry would simply urge you to pause in an otherwise frenzied time to say thanks to those who have put you in the position to be able to apply to and ultimately attend college. Maybe that person is a parent or a teacher or coach, or perhaps a counselor or a grandparent. Who are your Jerry Hitts? Who keeps you grounded and adds value in your life? Be sure you take a moment to hug them, tell them you love them, and let them know you recognize the gift of their impact on you.

 

A Family Affair, Part Deux (For Parents)

Let’s go for a ride together. Not a driverless car or a Bactrian camel. Let’s go out on the sea for a bit. Winds, squalls… rudders… you know, sailing.

When you first have kids, you are undeniably the captain of the boat. At the helm you grip white knuckled even when the skies are clear and the seas are calm because you are so sleep deprived you don’t even see the blue or feel the warmth of the sun.

As kids get a bit older, you start to loosen your grip. You let out the sail and occasionally gaze at the horizon. But make no mistake- you are the captain. You are dictating the “ports” (where to go to school, which neighborhood to live in), and when to “come about.”

As your son or daughter enters adolescence, you let them hold the wheel (granted, you still remain within arm’s length). You may even go up on deck to sun yourself and they take the helm (but you never actually shut both eyes).

If you have a high school senior, I implore you to start climbing the ladder to the crow’s nest. This means taking both hands off the wheel to let your son or daughter try theirs. This means occasionally leaving town with no groceries in the fridge to be sure they’re still nourished when you return. This means letting them do their own laundry, even if only for a month.

Climb up to the crow’s nest for the college admission process. Let your student write their own essay (but call out from your perch a reminder to edit, so they don’t include the name of another school before submission.) Let them be the ones that meet deadlines and get their resume to their recommenders well in advance. Climb up to the crow’s nest and yell down a week before the deadline to check on progress. “Iceberg!” “Shoal!” “You can apply to that school honey, but if you are admitted, we are going to need $20,000 in aid.” Or “The prospects for employment in that major are slim. If you decide to pursue that, you have to get an internship every summer.”

Climb up to the crow’s nest. If you do that now, the conversations you have this year will be far more empowering and mutually enjoyable. More importantly when your son or daughter does select a college and begins freshman year, you will have already positioned yourself appropriately (and they won’t mix colors and whites in warm water.)

After all, you cannot captain from 50 or 500 miles away. Climb up to the crow’s nest. You’ll enjoy the view and will be proud and impressed with the captain below.

See you next week as we round out A Family Affair.

A Family Affair, Part 1

It’s taken me over fifteen years working in college admission to realize a basic human truth:  People love their kids. Profound, right? But it’s an extremely important lesson and a statement I continue to tell myself and our staff each year.

People love their kids. That’s why a mother might call pretending to be her daughter in hopes of receiving a password or an admission decision. That’s why a father will be in the lobby at 7:30 a.m. after his son was deferred admission or waitlisted the day before. People love their kids. You’ve been holding them up literally since they were born and even now at 120 lbs or 250 lbs, you’re figuratively still doing just that.

This is why this excerpt from Jay Mathews’ article in the Washington Post a few years ago is so disconcerting to me: “There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college.”

Now I realize this is hyperbolic journalism. Regardless, nobody wants to be part of an industry that breeds that kind of angst. However each year we see strained family dynamics, so his sentiments are somewhat true.  I believe there is a different solution– a better way forward. So here is a practical tip for helping your family thrive in the admission process, rather than allowing it to be divisive.

Safe place-safe space

Starting in the junior year of high school and gaining momentum in the senior year, the “college conversation” can seem like THE ONLY topic. So whether you are on the way to church or coming home from a tennis match, or driving two states over to visit relatives, the talk is always about college. “Have you considered applying to University X?” “I hear Brandon is really happy at Y College. You remember Brandon, right sweetie?” “Have you finished your essay?” “Where is your friend Sarah going to go for college next year?” And on and on and on…

If this is your pattern, then the quality of the conversation simply cannot be sustained. Nobody can talk about one subject all of the time and expect everyone else to continue to be interested or engaged.

I propose your family set aside two hours on a specified night each week or perhaps on Sunday afternoons and agree that the conversation will be about college. It’s in this time you open college mail, discuss deadlines that are coming up, look over essays to be edited, or discuss upcoming trips and the logistics of all of this. Everybody agrees to come to that meeting open, potentially even smiling (snacks help) with a willingness to ask and answer questions in the spirit of unity.

If this sounds cheesy or utopian or Pollyanna, then good. We all need a bit more of that in life in general, and certainly in the college admission process (Again, your alternative is what Mathews proposes). Also, no cell phones, no petting the cat, no staring longingly out the window. Just a defined period of time and a “safe place” where these necessary (and hopefully now more intentional) conversations can take place. Outside of that time and place, the college conversation is forboden (a great and all too infrequently used word). So if mom asks about a scholarship deadline on Wednesday at 7:30 a.m.- you can simply reply, “Safe place- safe space.”

At the end of the day, people love their kids. Students- remember that when mom and dad are on your case about this. Parents- remember that when your voice raises or when your patience wanes.

Tune in next week for tip 2 of A Family Affair.