Interview with Brittany Wagner, Part 2: 10,000 Pencils

In the first season of Netflix’s outstanding sports documentary Last Chance U, America met and fell in love with East Mississippi Community College’s most influential team player: academic advisor Brittany Wagner.

In our last episode, we talked with Brittany about her career path as an academic advisor and how she bridges the gaps between herself and the students she advises. In this show, Brittany gives an impassioned rationale for allowing athletes to major in sports, and we learn just how many pencils she has now that season two of Last Chance U has wrapped.

Listen to part two of this two part series as we explore the life and mind of a top performing academic advisor, mentor, and friend.

 


Transcript

Rich Tatum

I understand you think that college athletes should be able to major in sports.

Brittany Wagner

I do. I do, and I know that’s probably not a popular thing to say, but I do.

Rich

Explain what you mean by that. Maybe less of an emphasis on the reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, more of an emphasis on athletics as a trade?

Brittany

No, I don’t know that that’s where I would go with it.

I think that it’s unfair. I think that you have young students who want to be an attorney and they major in pre-law and they go to law school and their track is studying what they love or what they want to do. You have artists who get to major in art and they get to take classes, learning about what they love. But then you have athletes who love their athletic performance. They love their game. They love their bodies. They love these things, and we don’t allow them to study that!

I think that’s not fair. Why are artists any different from athletes? It may be a small percentage of athletes that go on to make this a career, but if you probably broke down the numbers, most athletes, they are going to wind up doing something related to athletics. It may not be playing their sport professionally, but it’s just going be something along those lines.

I just think that if we would allow them to study what they love the way that we allow other students to study what they love, they would enjoy their education and they would maybe perform better, and maybe be more successful off the field and in the classroom because we’re allowing them to study what they love. But instead, the NCAA and advisors everywhere, we make them fall into another category because they have to pick a major and that’s not an option. So we make them study something else and it’s not something that they enjoy or they care about or they love, and so they’re just going through the motions.

Now, I think that English is important. I think they need to learn how to speak and write. Reading, obviously, is important, but I think that there are interviewing classes they could take so that when they are in front of a microphone or on a stage with an audience, they could speak well. I think that there are finance classes they can take, money management classes they can take. There are some law classes they could probably take to learn when they get an agent, or they have these contracts, how to read them — what to look for.

There are classes, economics, classes that they can take that go right along with professional sports and learning about their bodies and their muscles and “why this hurts.” This bone is connected to this tendon and that’s what an ACL tear is. Learning how their body performs and why food is so important and why what you put in your body is so important to your performance on the field.

Those things are important for them to learn and to know, and I just think that with the hugeness of college athletics and professional sports, why in the world have we not developed a curriculum for these kids to major in?

Rich

You make a solid case.

Brittany

Thank you!

Rich

What would need to change in order for that to happen?

Brittany

I think there are a lot of people in higher ed that are just against athletics altogether. They’re against doing anything else for athletics or for athletes. And I think that there are a lot of people that would consider that “dumbing it down.” I don’t see it as dumbing it down, but I think there would be people out there that would see it as that.

Rich

Because the athletics part of the program is like a necessary evil that pays for the lights to be on, but we don’t want to actually acknowledge it as a craft and discipline in its own right?

Brittany

Right, yes. I think so. I think that would demand a little too much respect.

Rich

You’ve said that your ideal job would be to work with college athletes or NFL, NBA rookies as a behavioral specialist or as a life coach. Is that still your dream?

Brittany

Yes! Yeah, yeah. I think there’s such a need for that.

Rich

Is that a natural progression to move from being an athletic advisor to wanting to have more of a mentoring role?

Brittany

I think it is for people that want to be involved with the athletes. I think a lot of academic advisors move into an administration role from this position. They get burned out, and the thing that they get burned out with is the athletes, and so they move into an athletic administration role. They become an athletic director or a senior women’s administrator. They move out of the part where they have to deal with the athletes.

I think that’s what divides academic counselors. There are some of us that really enjoy the athletes. There are some of us that the athletes are the part that drain us. I think if you’re like me and the athlete fills you up, then I think, yeah, that’s the natural progression: moving away from the academic side and more into the counseling side, and the life-coaching, and the mentoring. Maybe there’s some people that like the academic part of it, and so they move into maybe teaching or something similar.

For me, I enjoy the academic side, but I much more enjoy the life-coaching, and the mentoring, and the making them better members of society part of it.

Rich

And to set them up for success post-college.

Brittany

Yes, I think that’s very important. I think we’ve all failed as educators if we have not done that. They can learn history, and college algebra, and English, but if they can’t get out and function in society and be better for having been at our institution, then I just think we’ve done them a disservice.

Rich

In their experience at college, the coach is concerned about their performance on the field, their teachers are concerned about their performance in the classroom. You may be one of the few people that’s concerned with their performance in life beyond all of that.

Brittany

Right, and I think about all the time, “What about the places that don’t have me? Who’s caring about these kids at those places?” Because I think we pull at them in all directions. There’s so much on their plate, especially now with social media and they’re all in the spotlight all the time and they can’t make a mistake. They make a mistake, and we just crucify them. I think the coaches are pulling at them, the trainers are pulling at them, the teachers are pulling at them — everybody’s pulling at them, but who’s helping them? Who’s loving on them? Who’s helping them to just get through it all? I think there’s just a lot of places and a lot of athletes that don’t have that. They don’t have anybody.

Rich

Not just the athletes. I didn’t have an academic advisor, not in any way like you, when I was going to college. Most students don’t who aren’t athletes because most programs can’t afford to pay the salary of an academic advisor unless there’s justification for it — and the athletics department clearly provides justification.

Where could students turn for guidance and counsel if they don’t have someone like you that’s assigned to them?

Brittany

There are counseling departments at most colleges now. I think that’s kind of an embarrassing thing for college students to walk into the big office that says “Counseling” on the front of the door. So many people see that as just negative. So I understand why college students are maybe apprehensive to go into the counseling center at their colleges, but I do think that’s a great resource for college students and I do think it’s probably underutilized.

I also think that there are teachers out there who truly do care about their students. I would suggest to students, especially when you get in your major where your class sizes are smaller, find a teacher that you kind of look up to, or align yourself with, or agree with, and try to see, will that teacher foster a relationship with you and mentor you in that way? Is there someone like that on the campus that you can talk to?

I think too there are organizations on campus, whether it’s sororities, or fraternities, or other honor society organizations, other things like that, that are extracurricular, maybe. Hopefully there’s a sponsor, an advisor, an adult that is overseeing that program. Is there someone in those programs that you can talk to?

And then in the community. I think there are a lot of adults out there that really do care about young people. They just don’t really know how to get involved and how to help them. Then I think there are a lot of young people that really need the support and guidance and mentoring of those of us that are older, and those young people don’t know how to find them. I think it’s just figuring out a way to merge the two. It’s communication. It’s talking and communication and putting yourself out there so that you find each other.

Rich

Yesterday was your last day at EMCC.

Brittany

Yes.

Rich

And Netflix has wrapped, so, we’ll see you in season two of Last Chance U, right?

Brittany

Yes, I will be in the entire season of season two. We filmed from August to December, and then they actually unwrapped yesterday and a crew flew in on Monday and filmed my departure yesterday. I think they are going back and re-editing some things to fit that in. Yes, I will be in season two, and yesterday’s teary goodbyes, I’m assuming, will be as well.

Rich

Was yesterday your last day at East?

Brittany

It was.

Rich

How bittersweet was that?

Brittany

Very bittersweet.

Obviously I’m excited for this next chapter, but to leave there, I’ve been there a long time and obviously have relationships outside of the athletes, with faculty and staff and administration and coaches. Then on top of that, the athletes, many of whom came there to play after seeing season one of the show and kind of came there for my help. For me to leave them was rough.

The beauty of yesterday, I think too, was they were so selfless in their goodbyes. Everyone was just wishing me well and proud for me. There just wasn’t any selfishness.

Rich

I can imagine, after having watched that first season of Last Chance U, that most people who know you are probably fans of you and want the best for you regardless of where you’re at.

Brittany

Yeah. That’s been a really nice thing to see. When season one came out, people were so supportive, and loving. Honestly, when it came out, I thought it would be a huge success, but I thought it would be a huge success because it was about football. I didn’t know if people would care about my role at all. For me to even be what people are saying is the “star” of the show and to have everyone really reaching out to me and wanting to know more about me — just that alone really restored my faith in humanity. I thought, you know what, there are a lot of people out there that really do care about other people, and the fact that people liked that part of the show more than they liked the football part really says a lot about where we are as a society.

Rich

You were clearly committed to the students there at EMCC. You were clearly committed to the school. What led you to move away?

Brittany

I am a person that is energized, I think, and rejuvenated with change. Although I’m not a person that likes it, I don’t really enjoy change very often, I do know enough about myself that when I get complacent or in a rut, I lose my mojo, so to speak, and I need that rejuvenation and that change to get back on my feet and get back to my center and who I am.

Eight years is a long time to be at the same place doing the same job, especially when it’s such a rural area like Scooba. I live about thirty-five to forty-five minutes away from Scooba. Been a single mom now for four years, so driving back and forth — being forty-five minutes away from my daughter . . . I drop her off at school, and then I’m driving forty-five minutes away from her. If something happens, I'm driving back.

Rich

Every time you’re in the car, on the way there and back, you’re probably running the math and thinking, “I’m spending ten hours a week in the car when I could be doing anything else more productive with my life.”

Brittany

Yes. It’s time, it’s money, it’s gas money! I knew probably — if I’m being completely honest — I would say two years ago, I’d probably been there two years too long. I think two years ago, I really kind of started feeling like, “Okay, my time here — I’m losing it. I’m losing my own motivation. I’m losing my own mojo in this job and I need to rejuvenate myself.” Then I felt obligated to stay and film a second season of the show. I didn’t want to let anybody down in that, so I think I stayed for that.

I just knew that, okay, if I don’t commit to this and do this now, I’ll never leave because there’s always that athlete that you want to stay for. Or if I had sat there, they would have talked me into a season three, or a season four. I think I would have just stayed there and I would have ended up losing myself.

I just knew. I could feel it inside of me. It was tough and it was a very hard decision to make, but I just knew that I had to do it — so that I could go on to bigger and better things.

Rich

Are you going to be moving?

Brittany

I am moving to Birmingham, Alabama, which is a much bigger city than I have ever lived in! I will be using my GPS daily.


At this point in the interview, Brittany described plans she was making at the time for a different career pivot than the one she actually took. I caught Brittany by phone to get that update, and we’ll play that audio shortly. In the meantime, we’ll just skip over her previous plans and get back to the interview.


Rich

You’re a little scared?

Brittany

Yeah, of course. I think any time you make a life change like this, it’s scary and you don’t want to fall flat on your face. I knew the minute that I announced it that there would be a lot of people that thought I was crazy, but I’m doing this for me and I’m doing it for Kennedy, too, to get us in a better area. This is just where I need to be right now, and that it is going to be such a bigger platform for me to expound on.

Yeah, there’s definitely fear there, but excitement as well and it’s gonna be great.

Rich

Now that you have made the question “Do you have a pencil” a virtual meme, what are you going do with all your pencils? Are you leaving them behind? You taking them with you?

Brittany

I took them with me. I have them.

Rich

How many pencils do you have?

Brittany

I have received 3,022 pencils!

Rich

Oh my gosh…

Brittany

From all over the world. Obviously my athletes have given them out all semester or all year, so a lot of them have been given away. I left some at the school, and then I brought the rest with me, and I’m hoping that I can go into these schools in Birmingham, these inner city schools especially, and hand out pencils.

Rich

So, when are you going to write your book?

Brittany

Funny! This has just been the craziest whirlwind, but I have one, so we are in the process!

Rich

Brittany, thank you so much for spending a lot more time with me today than I think either of us expected, but it’s been a delightful conversation, and I think you have a lot to teach people who want to go into academic advisement or working with students or athletes. I think you’ve got a lot of insight and I think people can stand well to be inspired by you.

Brittany

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, and thank you!

I conducted this interview a few months ago and recently learned that Brittany’s previous plans had changed. She still left EMCC, but she’s launched a new venture instead, and she’s very, very excited.

Here we go:


Rich

Yeah, it’s been a few months since we talked and when we talked you had different plans and you’ve now started your own venture. Can you tell us briefly what that is?

Brittany

Yes! I I have started my own company. Ten Thousand Pencils is the name of it, obviously coming from the "Do you have a pencil?" line of the show. We call it 10KP for short, so you may see it out there as 10KP or 10,000 Pencils. It’s just an exciting time. Obviously the goal for me is that this company grows so large that I have to hire counselors to work for me and train them and that eventually we have “Brittany Wagners” all over this country — working with a large amount of athletes all over the country and that we end changing — we end up changing college football. We change the scope of college football because we’re preparing kids and they’re getting to their institutions prepared and ready for that level . . . all because of 10,000 Pencils!

Rich

I bet your phone must be blowing up again now that the second season has started.

Brittany

It is! This has been — I know how manage it better this time, having gone through it once before. I now know how to manage it. I also have a team of people helping me to manage it this time — which I did not have in the beginning. So it’s easier for me, but it also feels bigger to me. I feel like this time there are more — more emails, more messages, more requests. It is a little overwhelming at times. And you know, unfortunately right now, the people that suffer the most are probably my family because I just don’t have — right now, I don’t have the time. That’s upsetting to me a little bit, but you know it’ll all it’ll die down in little while and things will get back to normal.

Rich

It’s going to be a challenge to to delegate to others.

Brittany

Yeah you know I think that’s always been a challenge for me. I’m a little bit of a control freak. So, for me to delegate and let things go — sometimes it’s hard. I think I’m doing a good job of it right now — I have two people back in Birmingham, Alabama, that are right now doing an awesome job and helping me out tremendously. So, yeah, I have a lot more help and I’m asking for help maybe more than I did with season one. So I’m learning delegation skills!

Rich

Hey, thank you, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to give us an update, I know your busy, thank you so much for your time!