A few weeks ago I watched In Search of Greatness, a documentary featuring some of history’s best known and most accomplished athletes, including Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Pele. It covers their backgrounds, motivations, challenges, unconventional styles, and inimitable spirit.
I’ve engaged in some vehement debates with friends about who was the “greatest of the greats,” but we all agreed on one thing: seeing true greatness in action is a rare privilege. Over the course of the last decade, that’s exactly the position I have been in serving under our now outgoing president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson.
Anyone who saw MJ at the height of his game or watched Pele play loves to tell stories about “that day” or “that game” because indelible moments leave lasting impressions. As Peterson prepares to retire from Georgia Tech, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned from his leadership.
Move-in day in August is one of my favorites of the year. It’s gratifying (and frankly relieving) to see students arrive on campus. When numbers on spreadsheets and essays on applications manifest themselves in actual people with cars filled with boxes of shoes, bedding, and neatly packed toiletries, I may say, “Welcome to campus!” but I’m really thinking, “Phew. Thank God. I get to do this for at least one more year.”
The incoming class in 2009 was the first I brought in as director and happened to be Peterson’s first fall on campus as well. I was invited to join a group of administrators who were helping students unload cars at the residence halls.
Along with student volunteers, we greeted cars as they pulled up on the street outside residence halls and helped them unload from the curb. Doors would open, trunks would lift, and a swarm of movers would descend upon the wide-eyed family’s vehicle. It was hot and there was a steady stream of cars.
Many leaders would see move-in day merely as a photo opp. Grab a shoe box or some hanging clothes, shake a few hands, and wait for the article to be written up. But invariably, President Peterson would grab the mini fridge in the back of the car or the largest and heaviest box he could find and bound through the doors of the dorm and up two flights of stairs before the student’s younger brother even got out of the car. Peterson has never been about appearance. He approached that minor activity the same way he consistently operates—fully engaged and invested.
The admission process will Jedi-mind trick you with dates, deadlines, applications, decisions, seemingly dry or mechanical components, and an endless deluge of emails and brochures in your mailbox. It’s easy and understandable to look at the 16th college tour of the summer or another supplemental essay you have to write merely as a task to be done or an inconvenience in the midst of your busy life.
My hope is you will follow Peterson’s lead and fully engage. Approach this not as a process, but rather as an experience—an opportunity to grow and learn. Instead of simply listing and describing what you’ve done on the extra-curricular section of applications, give real thought as to why you participated and what you learned. What did you get out of being on the swim team? Why did you join the Spanish club? How did it shape and change you? And do you want to broaden, deepen, or discontinue that involvement in college?
Don’t just ask teachers for recommendations. Take the opportunity to thank them for their time and effort. Share what you learned in the course and how it’s helped or impacted you. College applications should not be treated only as a vehicle for delivering information to schools. If you fully engage, they actually have the potential to be an exercise in reflecting on your high school career and assessing how your experience directs you in the future, regardless of where you end up going to college. Engage Fully!
Ask Simple Questions
While there are many anecdotes I could recount, one of the most poignant occurred when President Peterson learned I was considering a position at another university. The title was higher, the portfolio was bigger, and the salary was larger.
He invited me to sit down and discuss the opportunity. After he shared a similar story from his career he said, “Really, there is just one thing to consider.” I waited expectantly, convinced this would be my answer, and he had the pearl of wisdom I needed to make a decision. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I want that job?’” He did not try to convince me one way or another. He did not encourage me to build a big spreadsheet of pros and cons or attempt to strategically analyze how this may impact my long-term career. Instead, he asked me to consider the perfect question—one that triggered a series of others I needed to reflect upon: Is this a fit? Where will I thrive? His question helped me tune out external pressures, opinions, and perceived factors and to be honest about what I really wanted…and why.
Too many students follow the crowd in the admission process. They apply to the same schools their siblings or friends applied to. They only consider local options or the most popular colleges in their region. They want to please their parents or feel like they must go to the most selective or highly ranked school to which they are admitted.
In the past we’ve written about asking better questions and even asking the same questions again and again. I stand by that advice, but to take a page out of Peterson’s book, my hope is throughout your admission experience you will continually ask the most important question: “Is this for me?”
When you are on a college campus listening to an admission officer or tour guide or academic advisor, ask, “Is this for me?” When you put together the list of colleges to apply to, ask, “Am I applying here for someone else or is this for me?” When you are selecting a major or deciding what topic to choose for your essay or making a final college choice, ask, “What are the outside pressures I am feeling? Is this being pushed on me, or is this really for me?”
Around November of the first year (sometimes earlier) many students begin to question their college choice. They spend consecutive nights endlessly scrolling Instagram or visiting friends at other schools and returning to a dark dorm room believing they made a mistake. Sometimes this happens because they limited their admission experience to a process and simply went through the motions. They “ended up” somewhere rather than choosing it. Outside factors and pressures corrupted an honest, intentional, introspective experience. I hope you’ll have both the courage and confidence to ask, “Is this for me?” Ask Simple Questions!
President Peterson has four (now adult) children of his own. He and his wife, Val, have fostered nine others. If you are around him long enough, you’ll hear him recount stories about conversations with President Obama, Fortune 100 CEO’s, and some of our nation’s highest-ranking military officials. He will passionately discuss thermodynamics or complex engineering concepts. But I’ve seen his greatest joy come as he’s shared simple stories about his kids and their families.
One day, early in Peterson’s tenure at Tech, we were informed of an admitted student who died in an automobile accident while driving his sister to school. We learned these were the only two children in this particular family. He invited me to his office to learn more and discuss the situation, as this was an admitted, not an enrolled or current, student.
I explained that traditionally I took care of writing to families during the admitted stage. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, then slightly shook his head and said, “You know, Rick. I’ve had a lot of titles in my life: professor, dean, provost, Chancellor, but by far the one I cherish the most is ‘father.’ I simply cannot imagine how these parents are feeling tonight.”
He wrote the letter that day. I went home, hugged my wife, and slept on the floor next to our son’s crib.
After sitting at the intersection between high school and college for the last 20 years, I’m convinced that at its core the admission experience is fundamentally about family. Admission officers rattle off factors and stats and dates that appear quantifiable. Students and parents focus on elements like grades and test scores and decisions and money and other elements that appear to be sterile. The truth is the admission experience is not defined numbers but is instead deeply relational. It is rooted in both individual and collective hopes and dreams.
Visiting and applying to colleges, handling decisions, weighing options, and ultimately arriving on a campus provides an opportunity to connect rather than divide; to trust each other rather than be paranoid and skeptical about how decisions will turn out; to control what you can control—how you treat and love one another. Family First!
In Search of Greatness
Georgia Tech’s motto is “Progress and Service.” I like to modify it when talking to students and our team to “Progress (not perfection) and Service.” If you watch the documentary, you’ll notice each of the stars talks at length about losses, setbacks, challenges and difficult moments. Clearly, the refusal to accept the status quo and the desire to continually refine and improve is a commonality among the greats.
I hope you’ll take a similar approach to your next year of high school and keep that mentality as you enter college. Nobody expects perfection from you, even though at times it may feel that way. They simply see your greatness and want you to strive for it. Similarly, I cannot offer you a perfect way to go through your college experience, because it’s your experience. I can only encourage you to Engage Fully, Ask Simple Questions, and keep Family First.
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