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Academic counselor in Netflix’s ‘Last Chance U’ – now at the University of Montevallo – shares life lessons

If you wanted to sketch the course of Brittany Wagner’s professional life, you’d have to use a pencil.

That simple but powerful utensil – sharpened on one end, with a tiny eraser on the other – was Wagner’s weapon of choice as she guided aspiring but often struggling athletes through the rigors of community college in the first two seasons of the wildly popular Netflix documentary series “Last Chance U.”

While Wagner toiled to keep football players at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) in Scooba, Mississippi (population 700) on track as their academic counselor – more for life after football, but also to maintain their NCAA eligibility – they were teaching her some vital life lessons, too, she said.

Now an adjunct professor in the College of Business at the University of Montevallo, Wagner has transferred some of those lessons, and a few learned through her personal struggles, into a book: “Next Chance You: Tools, Tips and Tough Love for Bringing Your A-Game to Life.

Wagner said the book was inspired by the thousands of emails she received during and after her Netflix run. In those emails, folks candidly shared with her their personal struggles, and how they were motivated to work toward overcoming them by watching Wagner guide athletes to greater heights.

“I thought, what if I just wrote it down – the lessons I really learned from those athletes?

“I’m not writing that I have it all figured out,” Wagner said. “What I wrote is, I am on the ground with you, figuring it out, too.

“Everyone is struggling with his/her own life experiences. My hope is, there is something in the book that can motivate someone at every point in their life.”

But back to that pencil, which is undoubtedly the metaphor for Wagner’s journey.

A Mississippi native, Wagner struggled in college – like many do – in plotting a career course. After she landed the academic counselor position at EMCC, she became a divorced single mom with a young daughter, commuting 40 miles one-way to the remote campus, and barely making ends meet.

Then, Netflix came to town.

During multiple episodes of “Last Chance U,” Wagner is seen handing out sharpened pencils to EMCC athletes as they trudged reluctantly to class or to take an exam – because they often forgot to bring one. But what Wagner also learned is, some of the athletes were literally too poor to buy a pencil. Other athletes were distracted by family problems, or had simply been passed through years of school because of their athletic prowess and had never been taught even the most basic lessons about how to be prepared and succeed in the classroom.

Wagner wasn’t paid a cent for her appearances on “Last Chance U.” But the lessons she learned from those EMCC athletes scratching toward a football dream and a better life – and the reaction from the show’s fans to her approach in guiding them – inspired her in 2017 to form a company: Ten Thousand Pencils. Through consulting, and motivational speaking engagements across the nation, Wagner offers professional guidance to a wide range of people, from aspiring athletes to at-risk youths, to high school counselors and college-level administrators working to build relationships with students. To date, she has helped more than 200 football players academically qualify for NCAA Division I schools, and some of the athletes have progressed to the NFL. Wagner’s work with students and athletes has garnered her national media attention, ranging from ABC’s “Nightline” to the Los Angeles Times, to GQ magazine.

As for the “Ten Thousand” in her company’s name, Wagner said it was inspired by the words of author, journalist and thought-leader Malcolm Gladwell and his discussion of the “10,000-hour rule” in his best-selling book “Outliers.” In the book, Gladwell argues that success is rarely secured swiftly. Rather, most successful people have devoted many hours to the effort – 10,000 or more – to gain the knowledge and experience that put them on the path toward success.

That’s a fundamental life lesson in Wagner’s view – one she plans to share Feb. 23 when she is a keynote speaker at the Alabama Power Youth Leadership Conference. The annual event,  being held virtually this year, will bring together thousands of students from east and west Alabama for inspiring words, career guidance and other activities.

“Many of us quit too early, because we think we’re not good enough,” Wagner said. “But the fact is, we haven’t done the time. We haven’t put forth the effort.

“For the younger kids, I tell my story – how I didn’t have it all figured out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until after graduating college. And it’s OK – you don’t have to have it all figured out.”

What’s important, Wagner said, is to understand that you have to put in the work and be engaged. Pick up that pencil, so to speak.

“I really use that pencil analogy,” Wagner said. “You have to show up for your life, be intentional about who you allow in your inner circle. The problem is, we don’t show up a lot of the time – like when we’re buried in our phones. We’re not actively living the moment, because we’re too busy posting about it.

“Show up. Look up. Speak up,” Wagner said.

Another life lesson that Wagner has learned from the athletes she has guided and from her own challenges: It’s OK to make mistakes.

“I talk about mistakes because you’re going to make them. It’s part of growth, part of growing up.

“It’s OK to make mistakes. Talk about them, talk about how to fix them and move on.

“Not all of our opportunities are going to be shiny,” Wagner added. But they are opportunities to learn and grow. That was her experience at EMCC, which was hardly her dream job when she took it.

“EMCC was an opportunity that turned into something I never even dreamed of. That opportunity changed my life.

“We all have chances in life that on the outside may not look that great. But our own attitude and work effort can turn them into amazing opportunities,” Wagner said.

Having confidence in yourself and your abilities is a vital element in finding your path to success, said Wagner, who teaches classes in sport management and sports ethics at Montevallo.

“I think that’s key – when you believe in yourself,” said Wagner, recalling some of the young athletes she encountered at EMCC.

“I would watch the athletes have a swagger, a confidence on the field. Then step off of it and have no belief in themselves – no confidence at all. When we believe in ourselves, we’re unstoppable. The problem is, not many of us do believe in ourselves. We attach ourselves to self-doubt, and that limits our ability.”

Wagner said she will forever remain thankful to the student-athletes at EMCC for another powerful lesson – about the humanity of all people. It is a lesson she continues to share with audiences and the individuals she counsels.

“I think the main thing they taught me: You have to meet people where they are. They were super-cool people with really great, sometimes hard experiences.

“The reality is, we all come from different experiences. If we haven’t been taught, we don’t know what we don’t know. If I try to meet you where my expectation is, then you’ll disappoint me every time. But if I meet you where you are, we have an opportunity to grow and learn together. I learned that lesson the hard way.

“We all have value. We all matter, no matter what we’ve been told.”

Learn more about Wagner here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)