Brittany Wagner from Netflix’ Last Chance U on Helping Others, Losing Your Baggage and Taking the Next Step
Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. He is also a filmmaker and published author. Listen to our podcast on iTunes and Spotify and visit our website: theworkingexperience.com for videos, merchandise and more. You can also find us on Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, and Twitter.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brittany Wagner, who was featured in the Netflix docuseries Last Chance U, for The Working Experience. Ms. Wagner was the academic support counselor for the football players at East Mississippi Community College and is now a consultant and motivational speaker for schools and companies around the United States. Her message of reserving judgment, helping others, and resilience in the face of adversity resonates powerfully with her audience.
The athletes profiled in Last Chance U are playing for a junior college like Eastern Mississippi Community College in the hopes of getting noticed by a scout and drafted to play for a Division 1 school such as Mississippi State, Alabama, Notre Dame or Clemson. Scouts for these schools attend games and look for prospects. Some of them were not recruited by a Division 1 out of high school and are making another try; some have already played Division 1 and had been cut for academic reasons or they got into trouble. Places like EMCC give them a chance to redeem themselves. As the name of the show suggests, this is the last chance for them to make it.
However, it is not all about football. They have to meet certain academic requirements, which proves to be quite a challenge for many of these young men. Many of them come from difficult family situations with poverty being a huge obstacle. Many of them come from high schools that did not provide them with the academic skills to succeed in the classroom. They have a lot of baggage.
Brittany Wagner is trying to keep these young men on track.
Brittany is from Clinton, Mississippi. Besides her, the best known celebrity to come from Clinton is Lance Bass of the 90’s boy band N’Sync. She actually knew Bass in high school. She graduated from Mississippi State with a degree in Sports Communications and then went on to get a Master’s Degree in Sports Administration.
“I knew I wanted to do something in the sports world for a career, I just didn’t know what it was.”
What drew her to sports? She isn’t really sure.
“I didn’t play a bunch of sports; I wasn’t that talented athletically. I didn’t have any brothers traveling to play sports. I don’t know. I often think about that, how did I even get into sports and interested in them because it wasn’t really a part of our family.”
As often happens, our calling finds us, oftentimes born out of necessity, being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of the opportunity. In order to pay for her Master’s Degree, Brittany needed an internship. The only one left was in the Office of Academic Counseling.
She says, “I had no idea what that was or what I would be doing but I said, ‘Yes I’ll take it’, because I wanted to get my schooling paid for. I shadowed the football counselor at Mississippi State and she was, and still is, a strong, independent African American woman by the name of Ann Carr and just watching her interactions with the football players and the difference she was making in their lives, I immediately knew this is what I’m on this earth to do. I knew I wanted to do something in the sports world for a career, I just didn’t know what it was. So I just kind of fell into the athletic, academic role and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Fast forward fifteen years and along comes Netflix.
“The interesting thing about Season 1 is that I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting ourselves into.”
GQ had done an article on Jack Kelly, the nephew of legendary quarterback Jim Kelly. Jack had been kicked out of his football program for cursing out a referee and landed at EMCC. Producers at Netflix thought they could make a series out of exploring the junior college football circuit. They bought the rights to the article and reached out to the staff at EMCC.
Netflix as a producer of original content was fairly new at the time and Brittany originally declined to be a part of the show. She thought that the show, being reality TV, was going to poke fun at the people of Mississippi, showing them as ignorant and backward, living in poverty etc. However, the producers came to the school and spoke with them personally to let them know that they were sincere about their intentions to present an accurate story and they were able to gain her trust.
Reality TV often carries a negative stigma. It can be manipulative and exploit certain segments of the population for the amusement of others. And much of it is just downright terrible and has no social value.
However, it has had a very positive impact on her profession.
“I had worked for fifteen years as an academic counselor before the show came out. When people would say, ‘What do you do for a living and I would say, ‘Well, I’m an academic counselor’ I would get this look like, ‘What is that?’ And we were really the behind the scenes people that nobody knew existed and in a lot of ways we were the people keeping these athletes on the field.”
Without people like Brittany guiding these kids while they were off the field, teaching them life skills, keeping them on track, they would not have made it. This support system is the backbone of these organizations but most of us never see that.
“Last Chance U gave a name and a face to this profession.”
Because of the success of the show, there has been a huge boom in the numbers of people, the majority of them being young women, wanting to go into her field. Schools that never had this position before have created it, including high schools. It is notable that a reality TV show that started with a GQ article has influenced the development of an entire industry.
And there are valuable lessons to be learned from the show; impactful life lessons. Not only lessons on how to succeed in life, but lessons on how to help people, how to refrain from judgment, how to understand people and their context.
“Do you have a pencil?”
Brittany can be heard repeatedly asking her students if they have a pencil. It has since become a hashtag, a symbolic question: Are you prepared for life? That sort of thing.
But in the beginning, it was a literal question:
“Do you have a writing utensil? Are you going to walk into class and actually even pretend to take notes?”
Of course, it has broader implications. The level of support that the young men in the football program needed amazed me. I couldn’t believe the things they did not know and could not seem to understand, like bringing a pencil to class. I thought, “Where do these guys come from that at the age of nineteen or twenty need someone to give them a pencil and a folder? How can a grown man not know that?”
I pride myself on being understanding but I was being terribly condescending and dismissive about the backgrounds of these young men and the struggles they had faced.
Brittany corrected me. She put their lives into context.
“I think there are a lot of people in this country that don’t realize that we have a lot of young people who don’t have access to basic resources. These kids had no cars, no money…they came to college with a backpack, two pairs of clothes and a toothbrush and that’s it. I came to college with a U Haul.”
I can relate. I come from a privileged background. I take a lot of things for granted. My parents paid for my education in full; I wanted for nothing. I always had people around me to help guide my decisions and help me when I failed. I was judging them through that lens.
Which is incredibly stupid. The failure is not theirs; it is ours.
So what do you do? How do you help people in their situation?
“I learned really quickly that I could either beat them up and have this pretentious attitude of how did you come to college without a pencil, what’s wrong with you? Or I could just hand them a pencil and set them up for success. I can impact their lives that easily by just handing them a pencil and not make it this big ordeal and shaming them about why you don’t have a pencil.”
Why not just help people who need help? Give them some guidance? Why do we vilify people in need? Why do we blame them for not knowing how to make the good choices when they have never been taught how to make good choices, when they have not even had access to the resources to make good choices? How many people who need welfare are made to feel ashamed, made to feel like it is their fault, that they are leeches on society? Why do we stigmatize them?
Because it absolves us from responsibility. We shake our heads and say, ‘They just don’t get it.’ And when we do this, the problems persist.
Brittany’s attitude is to take the kids as they are and go from there. Give them what they need to be successful. However, she did not pull punches. She called them out on not showing up to class, not meeting deadlines, having a bad attitude. Kids crave boundaries, they crave discipline. They want someone who cares enough to tell them, “No, that is wrong. You need to do this.”
“You’re not doing anyone any favors when you’re enabling their behaviors.”
During Season 2, Brittany was struggling with staying at EMCC or going out on her own. She had been receiving requests for speaking engagements and offers from schools, coaches and parents from all over the country to work with the athletes in their programs. The show had given her a platform and she wanted to maximize the opportunity that had made her so visible and reach as many people as possible.
However, that was not an easy decision. She struggled with staying in her comfort zone or jumping out into the great unknown. It was her students who gave her the encouragement she needed.
“Ms. Brittany, “ they said, “you keep telling us we need to go for it; we have to go for our dreams and now you’ve got a dream and you have to go for it.”
So four years ago she went out and started her consulting company, not knowing what she was doing. Four years later her company is still going strong even though she says, “Most days I still don’t know what I am doing.”
Brittany offers her clients practical advice. She helps high school and college athletes develop life skills such as money management, interviewing techniques, etiquette classes, basically how to function in society. Drawing upon her years of experience, she instructs them on the realities of the recruitment process and how something like their social media can affect their chances. She has them bring their phones to her and they scroll through their posts and she tells them exactly what to delete and why.
“In this day and age, you’re social media is who you are to the coaches who are trying to recruit you.”
And it is not just a matter of what they are posting but when.
“I had coaches that would say we’re going to pull the offer on this athlete because he is consistently posting at 2am and at a Power Five Division One program you need to be asleep at 2am.”
After a while, she had kids lined up outside her office wanting her to look at their social media and tell them what to delete. They, these eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old athletes, were craving guidance, boundaries, discipline. They wanted her to tell them, “No, you can’t do that.” Why? Because they didn’t know. No one had ever told them. Sometimes, telling someone “No” shows you care.
She stresses to them that the coaches are human beings with families and responsibilities.
“I really try to humanize the coach. Look, you’ve got to understand that these coaches are making millions of dollars and they have a wife and a house and kids and that check is supporting that wife and that house and those kids and that check is dependent upon you doing what you are supposed to do.”
A coach is not going to risk their career for some kid who is posting nonsense at 2am when he is supposed to be sleeping so he can do his job the next day. A coach is not going to risk his or her career over a nineteen year old who is getting into all sorts of other trouble. They are not going to be recruited, period.
This practical guidance is what many of these your people have never had. Brittany is able to give it to them.
“It has been an amazing opportunity; I could not have dreamed it up.”
In addition to schools, Brittany also instructs at juvenile justice conferences, defense attorney conferences, and parole officer conventions, where she stresses the value of relationships and giving kids who have made mistakes another chance. She does speaking engagements for companies like Coca Cola about building relationships with coworkers and clients and not leaving everything to technology. Relationships, personal human relationships, are where you build success. Computers can’t do that.
She tells them to ask themselves, “What can I do for this individual that will better them, which will better me? We are not maximizing our full potential if we are not helping others.”
Brittany Wagner is an expert in the field of success and failure. She has spent her professional career helping people be successful. But not everyone is successful. Even people with all the tools and talent in the world are not successful.
Why is that? What holds us back?
She says, “It stems from a belief in yourself. And taking all of the exterior beliefs that someone else put on you and carrying all that baggage. This belief that you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough because the ACT score doesn’t say it or the job title and the amount of money you’re making doesn’t add up to say that you’re good enough. We have all these limiting beliefs about ourselves. And I think that that’s what holds most of us back. We live in fear. And we start limiting what we go after.”
We think we need the validation of others. We don’t.
She stresses, “We have everything we need inside of us to be successful and none of that is dependent upon anybody else. Decide what you want to do and what you want to be and then start taking the steps to actually do it. Stop thinking about what could go wrong. Do the next thing, the very next thing and see what happens. And will it always work out? No. And that’s okay. It means you’re a human being. We fail. And that’s okay.”
It’s what you do after the failure that makes the difference.