Interview with Last Chance U's Brittany Wagner: Bridging the Gaps

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On July 29, 2016, Netflix released the first season of Last Chance U, six episodes of what many have called the best sports documentary ever made. And now, season two is already upon us! You owe it to yourself to watch this series and especially to get to know its protagonist.

Don't worry, even if you are not a big fan of college football, you'll enjoy this series. As Stuart Heritage of The Guardian said,

You do not need a working knowledge of American football to enjoy this. I was absolutely gripped.

If you haven’t watched the first season of Last Chance U yet, this interview contains some spoilers. But whether you’ve seen it or not, you should know the hero of this story isn’t the coach—though he is larger than life. The student-athletes, heroic and tragic though they are, are also not the heroes. Rather, the person you wind up rooting and crying for in this serial drama is a firebrand of an academic counselor, Brittany Wagner.

Like most educators, Brittany works behind the scenes. She never expected to be thrust into the spotlight. In fact, she fully expected her footage to land on the cutting room floor. But Last Chance U has done something nobody expected: it revealed the unsung heroism of a winning team’s biggest fan and secret weapon, the academic advisor.

Here’s part one of a two-part series as we explore the life and mind of a top performing academic advisor, mentor, and friend.

Full Transcript

Rich Tatum

East Mississippi Community College LogoI’m on the phone with Brittany Wagner, who has been serving for the past eight years as the academic advisor for the athletic department at East Mississippi Community College. I think your actual title is “Athletic Instructional Advisor and Compliance Assistant?”

Brittany Wagner

That is correct.

Rich Tatum

Athletic Instructional Advisor is a mouthful. It’s a way of saying “academic advisor,” right?

Brittany Wagner

Yes. Academic advisor, academic counselor. Any of those are fine, and basically the “athletic” part is: I only work with athletes.

Rich Tatum

People may know you from Last Chance U, which is a Netflix documentary that was released worldwide last year, July 29, to resounding positive reviews. Out of the gate, you were labeled as the breakout star of the show, much to your surprise, because of the GQ article that it was based on or that it was inspired by.

Even though the GQ writers followed you around for months, you were totally cut from the article, and so you expected not to even be featured in the video?

Brittany Wagner

Right. I expected it to be a show about football, and I thought that they were just following me around maybe because they knew that athletes would come in my office and there may be a couple stories here and there that they would need to get. I honestly had no expectation of how much or how little I would be in it. I really thought that no one would care about my role, that everyone would be watching it for the football part. And so I just really had no expectations.

Rich Tatum

You probably weren’t terribly surprised because academic advisors really are the unsung heroes of the academic world, aren’t they?

Brittany Wagner

Yeah, I think that it’s a thankless job. I think that’s a common theme. Me being cut out of that GQ article kind of sums up academic advising: you’re cut out of all of the hype and forefront, I guess, of college athletics.

There are academic advisors at every university in the country that have an athletic program. There is probably a department—more than one person—at your larger institutions. There are twenty-to-fifty people that are working in these departments advising these athletes. And then there’s tutors, and mentors, and all kinds of other people that work under them.

They’re just the unsung heroes. They’re the people behind the scenes that make the wheel turn that a lot of college football fans don’t know about.

Rich Tatum

When you began your educational path, you actually wanted to pursue studying to be an attorney before you went to college … and your mom dissuaded you from that path, right?

Brittany Wagner

Yeah. She’s really mad at me for saying that!

Rich Tatum

I hate to rub salt in the wounds!

But even after you got to college and had started studying, you were majoring in sport communication. Your first job out of school was working with the PR department?

Brittany Wagner

Yes. I majored in sports communication—and honestly I picked that major because it had the least amount of math affiliated with it! So … for all the wrong reasons!

I did love my classes. I did love being in that major, and I always was a sports fan, so I knew I wanted to go into something with athletics. I just didn’t know what. My first job was with the media relations department at Mississippi State, just as an intern student worker. Then I worked for the Charlotte Knights—which is a AAA baseball team for the White Sox—the summer after I graduated from college, as an intern again.

So I really felt like I thought that the media relations/community relations/marketing—that kind of field—would be what I went into. Then I got a graduate assistantship at Mississippi State in the athletic academic office. And it was the first time I had ever heard of that. When I started working there, I knew almost instantaneously that that was what I wanted to do.

Rich Tatum

What made that connection for you? Moving from communications—being the outward face, working with the public and translating all of the school’s programs for public and commercial consumption—to making those connections with athletes? It’s a totally different shift. It’s a different perspective.

Brittany Wagner

I think it was the relationships with the athletes. Those people—the academic counselors may be the people behind the scenes that no one knows about—but they’re the people connected the best with the athletes. They’re the people that actually know these athletes on a totally different level. They know their background, they know their history, they know their tendencies, they know their strengths, their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, and that was what appealed to me. Not necessarily being the face of anything, but being the person that could really build the relationships with the student athletes that were competing for these institutions.

Rich Tatum

Looking back, can you see the direct connection between your parents and your career path today?

Brittany Wagner

Definitely. I think that too is, if not all of the reason, definitely a huge part of the reason why this is my passion and why I have been so successful in this career. My dad has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a college professor but also a psychologist; and my mom was a special ed director, speech pathologist, special ed teacher, and then special ed director. I think what I did was I merged their two careers into my own. I’ve definitely taken so much from what they taught me growing up and from watching them in their own careers to help me figure out my own and how to deal with the athletes that I work with every day.

Rich Tatum

Did that come as a surprise to you when you first realized that one day, that, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve become my parents?”

Brittany Wagner

Yeah, definitely! I realized it at east Mississippi, actually. There would be several times where I would have an athlete that I just didn’t know how to help—and it was either on a psychological basis I didn’t know how to help them, or a learning disability basis—and I didn’t know how to help them. I would find myself, rather than calling another counselor at another school or asking someone else, I would find myself always asking my parents. You know, I’d call my dad and say, “Okay, this kid is doing this. What does that mean? How do I need to respond?” Or I would call my mom and say, “Hey, I’ve got someone that I don’t think can read. What do I need to do?”

I found myself always calling my parents. Just a tremendous help—tremendous insight from them.

Rich Tatum

How has sport communication continued to help you in this job?

Brittany Wagner

I think it all ties together. I realized the other day, I made the comment that I have no marketing experience.

Someone looked at me and was like, “You actually do market every day because you’re marketing academics. You are marketing academics to athletes that don’t want to buy into that. That’s what you’re doing every day: selling this to these athletes.” Their buy-in is crucial to their success. I think that I use it a lot more than I think I do.

Obviously, in sports communication I had to take a lot of communication classes, a lot of interviewing classes, and media classes. Obviously, that has panned-out quite well, seeing that I have done hundreds now of television and radio and podcast interviews!

I find myself going back to my interviewing class or my speech class or other media classes that I took. It’s interesting to me how later on in life, you realize that things that you really didn’t think you would ever use, that you actually do use them every day.

Rich Tatum

It seems to me that you have a built-in roadblock that is maybe insurmountable in some ways because these students can never make academics their top priority because many of them are coming from small towns and the hope of the entire town is riding on their shoulders. They have got to make it big because everybody at home expects them to, and you are yammering in their ears, harping on them, asking them where their pencils are.

How do you get past that massive roadblock?

Brittany Wagner

It’s tough, and I think earlier on in my career, I was way more nagging. I was more narrow-minded in thinking, “Okay, just do it. You have to do it. Do it.” That worked with some people and it didn’t work with others. But I think over the years I’ve learned that the only way to really get the roadblock down, and to get the walls down, and to really connect with people is to know them and to understand them and to be tolerant of them. I started learning that if I would listen to them, listen to their stories, ask them about their stories, and their self—but then meet them where they’re at and help them to take their stories, take where they’ve been, take all that they’ve come from, and use it to move forward. Not use it as an excuse to not be good enough or to not be able to do this.

It’s important and it’s valuable: where they came from and what they’ve gone through in their life is valuable and it’s important and it’s part of who they are. I think a lot of times we want to dismiss that. We want certain people—college athletes—we want them to act in a certain way and we don’t take into consideration where they came from, and what they’ve been through, and why they do the things that they do. A lot of these kids that I’ve worked with, they have had traumatic experiences in their life. If you will listen to them, and talk to them, and really understand where they’re coming from, it really makes the fact that they show up to class without a pencil really insignificant.

You know, I can nag them about not coming to class with a pencil because as an upper class white female whose parents took me school-supply shopping every semester: “That seems silly to show up to college without a pencil.” Or I can just hand them a pencil and move on. Move on to things that maybe will matter more down the line. I think as I’ve gotten older, that’s just the approach that I’ve taken more. And I think that’s where the trust and the relationships—and honestly—the real life changes come from, is when they feel understood.

Rich Tatum

You describe several massive gaps that exist between you and the students you’re trying to help. You’ve got a gender gap—almost entirely male athletes. You’re white and many of the students you’re trying to help are not. You’re coming from a more affluent background than these kids, and many of them are coming from impoverished backgrounds. You’re coming from a family of educated parents, and some of these kids are coming from broken families, if not nonexistent families—and what families they do have are non-educated or semi-literate.

How do you manage to cross all of those gaps?

Brittany Wagner

I don’t know!

I think some of it is just an innate ability that is God-given. I can remember back, my earliest memory of it was fourth grade, where because of alphabetical seating, I sat in front of a student that was from a poorer area. I can remember in the fourth grade being concerned about him and his well-being and why he didn’t have lunch money or why he didn’t do his homework at night and helping him, and developing this relationship, and this bond with this boy in the fourth grade that really was unexplainable to a lot of people. I don’t know. I think some of that is just something that was just placed in my by a higher being.

I do think, though, that it just comes with your own life experiences and your own desire to just be better. I think, as I’ve gotten older, things that I’ve been through have forced me to be a little bit more understanding. But it was just a trait that I developed: I saw my parents treat people that way, I just developed that ability to be tolerant and understanding of people.

I think the gender gap actually works in my favor. I think with African-American—especially men or guys—they’ve had a distrusting relationship with a male at some point in their life. A lot of them don’t have father figures, and a lot of their stories—not all of them—but a lot of their stories it’s been an abandonment of a male that has created a lot of turmoil in their life. And so I think they go into relationships with men with a little bit of built-in distrust. And so, I think it helps me. Most of them at least had a female in their life somewhere that was loving to them and mothering to them. It may not have been a mother, but a grandmother, an aunt, someone in the neighborhood—they’ve had some female that has really shown them love and a mothering trait. I think they’re a little bit more trusting of females right off the bat. So, I think that helps me.

The interesting thing that I’ve learned about this generation is they don’t see color as much as maybe older generations do. I don’t really know—with me in my office and my dealings with these athletes, it’s not something that’s really ever talked about or really ever been an issue with myself or with the players. I just don’t think they’re concerned.

Rich Tatum

No, but it is funny when you’re trying to understand the latest rap lyric and they accuse you of spending time on Urban Dictionary all day.

Brittany Wagner

Yes! It’s funny moments where I think they make fun of me. We crack jokes. There’s been issues before— there’s things that I try really hard to accept them as who they are and then to figure out a way to better them in some way.

One of the things that I started doing very early on in my career was … there are certain words that they fly freely from these kids’ mouths. And I try to allow that, for them to just talk the way they talk and let’s try to correct that problem as we go. Maybe get them to think more about when those words are appropriate and when they’re not. But I have a rule in my office: You can be who you are. You can say what you want to say. You can listen to the music you want to listen to: but there’s two words that are not allowed in my office.

Brittany Wagner: Last Chance U. Ms. Wagner's Office.After as long as I’ve been there, eight years, I don’t even have to set that rule anymore. They know it. The freshmen coming in, the sophomores tell them, the first time one of those words comes out of their mouth, the sophomores will look at the freshmen and say, “Hey, you can’t say that in here.” It’s interesting to me that there’s a respect there for the four walls that I work in, and words that may normally flow from their mouth, they don’t say in my office.

I think that you can accept people as who they are, but also set a standard. I think that both of those things can be done as long as it’s respectful, and I think that that’s what I was able to do is respect them for who they are, but also set a standard for them. We respected each other enough for them, they would meet that standard.

Rich Tatum

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned on the job about doing this job?

Brittany Wagner

Don’t fight every battle. Let things go. When you’re dealing with coaches specifically, I don’t think it’s so much to do with the athletes, but when you’re dealing with coaches, coaches are typically very egotistical, stubborn, aggressive—especially if you’re dealing with coaches that win.

Rich Tatum

It’s part of the job description.

Brittany Wagner

Right. It makes them very controlling, type-A, temperamental, and that makes them good. That’s what makes them win, but they can be very difficult to deal with off the field in an office work setting because they want everything their way. They want it immediately. They’re not typically very good listeners. And so I think in the beginning of my career, every little thing that a coach would disagree with me on or would come at me with, I would fight. I would argue, or fight, or try to stand up for. I learned to save it for something that really matters. Save those moments and those battles for situations where it’s something that I will not compromise on. If it’s not really gonna be that big of a deal at the end of the day, then just let it go.

Rich Tatum

You’ve said that your true passion is music and dance.

Brittany Wagner

Yes.…

Rich Tatum

I understand that you were the head coach of the cheerleading squad?

Brittany Wagner

I was. It’s funny how I fell into that!

Earlier in my career, when I was at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, the cheerleading coach had just gotten let go and it was in the middle of the year, and so they were scrambling to find someone. The athletic director just basically saw that I was disciplined and knew that I had a dance background, but just, I think, saw my work ethic and said, “Hey, will you do this? Will you just do this to get us through the end of the year? Just take on the cheerleaders?” In a very minor role and I agreed to doing it, and then four years later I was still coaching the cheerleaders at Jacksonville State.

Rich Tatum

You were on stage with Lance Bass!

Brittany Wagner

Attaché Show Choir LogoI was. I was. Lance Bass and I were in a high school show choir called Attaché Show Choir. We were very competitive—we won ten, I think, national championships in a row. They’re still the winningest show choir in the country. And the show choir world is a very huge, competitive world, for people that don’t know that. And Lance Bass and I, we grew up together, we went to high school together, we were in that show choir together before he was a member of *NSYNC.

Rich Tatum

You could have had a career in dance.

Brittany Wagner

I don’t know that I could’ve—I wanted to. I wanted to be on Broadway, actually. I have been a singer and sung all my life. The same with dancing, and, obviously being in show choir, you’re doing both: singing and dancing. My show choir director, actually, on my senior trip he took me to New York with his wife. I saw the original cast of Rent—just a fantastic experience for me. I think their dream was for me to be on Broadway. I think my dream was to be on Broadway. But I just wasn’t brave enough. I just wasn’t brave enough to pursue that. I lacked confidence. I didn’t really think that I was good enough at either dance or singing to really make it a career. And so I kinda just gave it up and I haven’t really done it since.

Rich Tatum

Do you have any regrets about that?

Brittany Wagner

You know, sometimes I think—I don’t know that they’re regrets. I wonder, though, why I didn’t believe in myself more, because I had all the backings to believe in myself. I was popular in high school. I was talented. I had the support of my parents and my teachers. I just had it all going for me. I don’t really know where that lack of belief in myself and lack of self-confidence came from. And so I wonder about that. So I regret that, that I didn’t just have that “I’m gonna go for it” attitude. I think I’ve definitely been successful at what I chose to do. I don’t know that I would’ve really gone anywhere in the dancing and the singing.

Rich Tatum

Do you regret not studying to be an attorney?

Brittany Wagner

No, I don’t really regret that. You know, that was an early thing of mine. And my mom was probably right! I don’t know that I would be happy. I think I would have been good at it and I think I would have been successful at it, but I don’t know that I would have been happy doing it. I don’t think that that was my passion or really had anything to do with my passion.

Be sure to listen to part two of my interview with Brittany Wagner, coming up next.

You can catch Brittany Wagner's latest news at her website, BrittanyWagner.com, or follow Brittany on Twitter.

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