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Season 1: College Admissions Coach Helps Students with Options During Pandemic

Mary Grace Gardner, college admissions coach, responds

This interview took place on June 11, 2020.

Guest bio:

After working for the UC Berkeley admissions team, Mary Grace Gardner became an entrepreneur and college admissions and career coach, who has spent over a decade helping students get into their ideal school. She guides clients across the globe in clarifying their goals, developing personalized plans, and preparing for successful careers.

She has been featured in places like Business Insider, CNBC, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News and World Report, and Fast Company. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.




Sally Hendrick (00:09):

News stories were coming in about this strange virus in Wuhan China. It was weeks before we saw the first cases in the US as the numbers went up each day. My curiosity got the best of me, and I started plotting the curves here's stories from real people all over the world and how they've responded. I'm Sally Hendrick, founder of Shout Your Cause, and this is COVID-19 the world responds.

Sally Hendrick (00:39):

Hello, Mary, do you go by Mary grace or Mary?

Mary Grace Gardner (00:43):

Mary Grace,

Sally Hendrick (00:44):

Mary Grace, Mary Grace Gardener. Welcome. Thank you for coming to talk with me today. Tell me a little bit about yourself before we get into this. You know, COVID talk that we're going to have.

Mary Grace Gardner (00:56):

Yeah. So thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited to have this conversation. I am a college admissions coach and I run a company called The Young Professionista. Where I help hardworking students with getting into their ideal school and professionals with landing their ideal job.

Sally Hendrick (01:15):

Okay. And we met online in a, in a business learning group about four or five years ago. Oh my gosh. I think, well, the year I started was 2015 and then I left corporate in 2016. So tell me, when did you start in that class? Was it the same year?

Mary Grace Gardner (01:35):

I think I started it might've been shortly after that because it was right when I was pregnant with my first child and I remembered just like most mothers have a nesting period. My nesting period was, let me get all the licensures I want, let me launch a business. Those were my nesting activities. So I think it was right around when my child was born. So 2015,

Sally Hendrick (01:57):

Yeah. Okay. Well, cool. So that's how we met and I know I've seen you in, but we haven't really like had any deeper discussions, just a comment here and there on a post noticed you, you noticed me. And so the funny thing though, that I just found out about you is that you majored in math in college. And so did I?

Mary Grace Gardner (02:19):

Yes. I, I'm such a fan of the quantitative world and I have noticed the posts that you have made as of late with the statistical analysis. And every time I see them, I think, Oh, someone at my heart.

Sally Hendrick (02:36):

Hard thing to do. You know, it was it, I'm not doing it as a project for any company. You know, and this is what I did for 25 years. I did that sort of analysis for companies for the financial impact of behavioral statistics, regarding lawsuits for employee workers' compensation or for automobile or medical malpractice. And, and I really specialized in the healthcare side of things. I worked for HCA healthcare corporation of America for seven years. And it also had a lot of healthcare clients that I did, the work comp and the medical malpractice analysis for. So that's something that even though I was getting paid, doing that before I started my business, or before I left corporate, anyway, I had started way before that. But then this has been something that I've just done because I saw some information and thought, wow, people need to understand what this stuff really means. So I'm glad you saw that.

Mary Grace Gardner (03:39):

It's so important. I think in, in my career, so most of my career actually has been in healthcare leadership. And I remember early on in my career, there was a leader who I was having a mentorship conversation with her, and she was very appreciative of my quantitative background. And I can't forget what she told me. She said, the person who has an understanding of data is the person who has the ability to paint a story and has the power. So it's such a powerful tool and there are so many different stories that can be painted with it. And that's why it's so important to be careful with making sure that they're truly understanding what's out there, which is why I appreciate your approach in sharing those perspectives.

Sally Hendrick (04:26):

Cool. Thank you. That's really cool. Statistics and stories. I think that all kind of goes together. And the funny part about it is that the numbers are the truth tellers and you can't regret it. We can dig down into these anecdotal situations and say, but what about this? Or what about this? And I get that. But when you look from the higher view and you look at everything in the aggregate, you've gotta be able to weigh in. Well, what's the most prevalent thing that stands out and what it may be interrupting a pattern or what may be stopping something from making progress or whatever. That's where you can bring in the other things. And it makes it difficult for (hold sorry, somebody is making a lot of noise). It makes it really difficult for people to understand that there's a much higher view here that has to be considered and, and that's not communicated to the general public, all that much.

Mary Grace Gardner (05:31):

That's so true. I think people can take a tidbit of data and really run with it, right? And I think one of the most dangerous things when it comes to data is sometimes you see people running away with an association thinking it means a causation and it does edge, right? There are so many different things that may lead to that association. And so it's unfortunate where sometimes decisions can be made or attitudes and responses can be formed on one part of information that isn't complete.

Sally Hendrick (06:01):

So tell me a little bit more about the business you're in now, not the college part, but the surgical robotics part. How did you get into that?

Mary Grace Gardner (06:12):

So I, so my past 10 years in my career has all actually been in healthcare leadership and healthcare administration. So I mentioned, yes, I was, I was a math major when I first started and I, when I entered school, my intention was to become a math professor, but just like most students do in college.

Mary Grace Gardner (06:32):

I started exploring all the different routes there. And I remember having this distressed call with my parents, like most college students do with their crises and say, mom, dad, what am I supposed to be telling me what I should do? And I remember they responded with, we're not going to tell you what you need to be or what to do. You need to take some steps to figure it out. You need to figure out what you're happy with, what passions you've got, what you want to solve and let us know how it goes. And at the time I had a roommate who was crying because her mom was telling her she needed to be a lawyer. And so I had said, mom, dad, I have a person here who's crying because their parents are telling to be a lawyer. And you're here telling me to figure it out.

Mary Grace Gardner (07:20):

This is not fair. So of course, in retrospect, that was the best response a parent can give, but at the time I didn't appreciate it. And so when we hung up from the call, I said, okay, great. That means I'm going to have to figure it out. No, one's going to tell me. So I explored all sorts of different things. When I was in college, I tried genetics, research. I did health policy research, I, the arts and dance and so lots of different things. But I realized that I was really interested in was from an aspect of health and an aspect of children, looking at ways in which we can prevent people from getting ill. I like most students also, I, I explored becoming a pediatrician and I volunteered in a pediatric intensive care unit. And I realized that when I was holding babies who were dying, when I was encountering a heart patients, [inaudible], and it wasn't looking like they were going to transplant.

Mary Grace Gardner (08:16):

I realized I wanted to be part of solutions that were farther upstream. That led me to getting a degree in public health, in maternal and child health and international health. And while I was there, it was right around healthcare reform where I decided to work for a integrated healthcare system that was forefront of efficiency and quality and safety. And so I got a front row seat of in a time of map [inaudible]. What does that look like? And being tired of it. I land in my current role in surgical robot last, I had a great tenure, 10 years of working in strategy and performance improvement, working as chief of staff to their CEO. I wanted to be able then to apply those learnings. Now on the other side of a vendor side, looking at this on surgical robotics, how can you approach minimally invasive surgery in a way and law expertise that I had around running hospitals and systems. And so my current work I'm focused on that, but along the way, while I have been focused in the healthcare world, I've been mentoring students in this college prepping career consultant.

Sally Hendrick (09:30):

Yeah. So the college prep and career consulting, what was it that made you think about doing that?

Mary Grace Gardner (09:37):

So I never actually had thought to turn it into a business, right? So as I was pursuing my career, it was something that was just always on the side. So when I was at UC Berkeley for graduate school, the chair of my committee had asked me to be part of their admissions team. And so while I was on that committee, it, I, it was like a big eyeopener on what stood out. It was a big eye opener on the caliber of students who apply to a top program. And so I had that that experience and exposure. And then I had always had gotten families and parents and students asking me about my own journey. So I got accepted to competitive programs like Yale, Johns Hopkins, UCLA. And I made my decisions on where to go based upon where I would not end up in debt.

Mary Grace Gardner (10:30):

And so people had asked, how did I get through my education without being in an immense debt, which is very characteristic of millennials now. And so all along the way, I had just been asked questions about, well, how did you do this? And how'd you get that scholarship? And in my work, I, my, my, my day job, I've had the opportunity to serve as the hiring manager for all sorts of roles from administrative assistant to COO. And so I had three different lenses of what is it like to be that student who's applying? What does it like to be on that admissions committee? What is it like to be a hiring manager? Who's actually going to be hiring these people who come out of these programs. And so for several years, it was just a thing on the side where people ask questions, asked me to mentor their kids. And then once I realized I'm getting all the same questions over and over again, I am having people asking for more dedicated time. I realized that I could start creating systems and being able to help more people in that way.

Sally Hendrick (11:31):

Yeah. So do you have something that you do that unique to college counselors that specific to that the way you work with them? Cause I mean, there's so many different aspects to applying to college. It's not just filling out an application. There's much more,

Mary Grace Gardner (11:52):

There's so much more it, I think there's

Mary Grace Gardner (11:54):

When it comes to actually applying to college, there, there all the similar steps and the where it's, you're filling out the application and you're getting letters of recommendation, all these different pieces. But for me, and my approach that the parts that I focus most on are your essays, how to really, how to really highlight your unique and individual value. And that itself is a journey for a student to figure out what that looks like. The second is extracurriculars. So while there are those, the standard ones that you are, you are accustomed to seeing, helping students with really figuring out what's their personal passion project. What's something that they care firms have a problem. They want to solve big or small, but really customizing it so that they can figure out is this something they want to pursue on a longer term? Is this something they're interested in as a potential teacher, but being much more intentional about what it is they're devoting their time to.

Mary Grace Gardner (12:50):

And then the third piece that I really focused on is on life skills. So because of my hiring manager hat, I know that there's so much more importance than just the book smarts. It's also things like being able to be a leader and a speaker and having grit, having a growth mindset. And so those are the three areas in which I particularly focus on to make sure that students, as they're figuring things out that they are, when I'm looking at the long term of employability, that's what I really focusing on.

Sally Hendrick (13:18):

Yeah. Well, and that makes a lot of sense. And I don't think I ever remember hearing any of that back in the eighties when I was graduating high school. So that would have been a nice and nice exercise to go through with a counselor. So I talked with another counselor recently on my podcast who works with a lot of people from the Northeast and from the Chicago area.

Sally Hendrick (13:44):

She lives here in Nashville, a friend of mine here. She also works with people here, but most of her contacts are around the Boston area and also around Chicago area. And she talked about how the COVID-19 has really changed the way that the students are thinking about this fall for their freshman year or, you know, whatever else they're planning to do, you know, in two years, you know, cause obviously you work with students a few years before they're ready for college to get them prepared and you know, to make sure they're taking the classes, they need to go in the right direction or doing the projects that they need to be doing. But she's seeing that a lot of people are really changing their minds about how they're approaching this freshman year. Have you run into that with any of your clients?

Mary Grace Gardner (14:35):

That's so interesting because in peer groups, I'm hearing that as well for my particular batch of seniors who are now transitioning over and getting ready for college for me, it's no, they, they, we have talked through, what's the game plan now with this, with this change and in terms of what you're, what it is that you want at a first year, how can we still maximize that even if you're not getting the typical first year experience and coming up with contingency plans. And I think that's why it's so important to talk about resiliency. It's so important to talk about grit, growth mindset with students so that they don't, it's still devastating. Don't get me wrong. But then there's an understanding that there's still an opportunity to grow from this, right. And how can you make up for it second year of college and still get those first year of college type of experiences.

Mary Grace Gardner (15:23):

And so I haven't had any of my students who've wanted to defer for the year to take that to take a year off before going into college. But most of them have talked to me about, well, okay, this upcoming summer, what can I still do? Because my internships are, are aren't happening summer jobs aren't happening, but let's talk through what are ways in which I can still cultivate my skills. And so I have students who are in edX courses because they wanted to learn about programming and they don't want to lose the opportunity to continue building. I have students who are doing digital internships, helping businesses. And so I think part of the nature as well, my students in my clientele, I have students across the United States, but also in different countries. And so from that, there was already this kind of global perspective, this digital perspective, how can you leverage resources in a different way? And so I, and the greater, the greater, I think population regarding moving into college, I know is having these questions. And I think for my students, we've been talking about it throughout the year that this might be a reality. So let's talk about options now, so that you're not shocked first year of college when you're not able to be on campus.

Sally Hendrick (16:33):

Right. the other thing that this other counselor had mentioned was that some people were making switches on where they were going for financial reasons, because we have had a lot of businesses and a lot of individuals get hit personally. And it makes them like, okay, I'm not sure if I'm going to go to this particular school right now. Maybe I'll defer that application if they can. I don't really know these details. But they're thinking that they're going to do something else closer to home or like, or a little bit cheaper or whatever, to get some of those initial classes out of the way. What do you think about that?

Mary Grace Gardner (17:16):

So I have, in terms of my clientele, I have a bit of a range and there's a, there's a subset of my clientele who I work with that are completely pro bono. They are a subset of students who come from undeserved communities. And the first thing I talked to them very lightly about is finances, right, is making sure that we're making our decisions and figuring out where to go now is the time to start thinking about your financial decisions. And so for the students who are applying this upcoming cycle, it's a reality of what might that financial situation look like. And so we're having those conversation now on alternatives. It is. And so for those who are applying this goal, my recommendation to those who are thinking about the financial impact is to make sure you have a range of opportunities to choose from that.

Mary Grace Gardner (18:05):

I would rather a student at the end have too many things to choose from then not enough choice. And so we we've talked through, well, what's the option of doing something local? What's the option of actually going to community college for two years? Because the degree you have at the end of the day, won't say they started two years in community college. It'll just say the name of the university, which from where I was. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And so we're having those con I think it's so important to have a realistic picture of the impact I had. I had a student who I was mentoring and she, she was debating about, do I go farther away from home? Do I have a closer, closer to home because of this COVID situation? Of course your parents were worried about accessibility to the student. If there was an emergency, she was also looking at the financial situation.

Mary Grace Gardner (18:53):

And so at the end of the day, a, the finance, the financial pieces are real, a real consideration. And so making sure that, that students understand if they're not in a situation where they're getting full academic scholarship or based scholarship or parents, aren't in a situation where they they've saved the money to be able to pay for things that the student have, basically a reality check of how will they mitigate this huge debt. They might potentially be in a book that I have my high school seniors read. And I gift through graduating seniors is Ramit Sethi, I will teach you to be rich again, Ramit Sethi, I will teach you to be rich. It's a book that helps, especially for those who are beginning in their financial journey. It goes through all levels. But especially for those who are beginning, it's figuring out how do you, how do you pay down loans? How do you set yourself up for longterm savings?

Mary Grace Gardner (19:57):

I know is not the first thing students are thinking about, but once they start getting those bills, they will start thinking about. And so it's a book that I say the summer before you go to college, here's a good book to read and take a look at this book.

Sally Hendrick (20:09):

Yeah, yeah. Really, because I think that the the idea that millennials probably have gone through the last decade or so is that, Oh, I'll just pay it back. I'll just pay it back. And then they get to the reality of paying that back. And it's years and years and years, and can be like some people's house payments,

Mary Grace Gardner (20:33):

It's such a big deal. I, I remember it was a hard conversation for me, with my parents when I was trying to choose which school to go to. When, when you see something like Yale, it's very attractive or Johns Hopkins very attractive, but then you look at the bill and you say, is it, will that be much different than you go into this other university and will the opportunities be different?

Mary Grace Gardner (20:54):

And my decisions in terms of what schools I chose really was, which gave me the most academic scholarships. And I'm going to go for that because I didn't want to be in that debt. That's what I have to my right. And it makes such a big difference on your, your life. Like being able to start off without debt or little debt, being able to see that lifestyle versus someone in a med stat, it's pretty stark contrast. So it's a real conversation, I think in light of COVID-19 and people's financial situations changing. I do think it's a conversation parents and students need to have about acquiring debt. How are you going to pay it? Who's going to pay it and making sure that there's clear clarity of expectation.

Sally Hendrick (21:41):

Yeah, exactly. So are there any particular challenges that you are running into because of the COVID-19 situation? And then after we talk about that, let's go into what you think it might be changing going forward

Mary Grace Gardner (21:58):

Yeah. And the college admissions and career coaching space. I think a particular challenge is that because everything is pretty much either shut down or virtual, there are a lack of opportunities for students to really explore their interests in the traditional route. They're not going to sports. They can't go to clubs and activities. They can't go to their lessons. And so students are wondering, well, how do I stand out now? I can't or how do I explore my interests? There's nowhere for me to go. And then the other thing that I saw as a challenge was that students were feeling like there weren't, there wasn't this creative outlet for them to have, to be able to express what they were going through through COVID-19. So a lot of worry, especially the students, I was coaching individually worries about isolation, about not being connected to other people.

Mary Grace Gardner (22:49):

And so that was a big, big challenge that was coming up with COVID-19.

Sally Hendrick (22:52):

Tell me, I didn't want to forget about this, that quarantine journal challenge that you threw out there. Yeah. Tell me what that was and how that really opened your eyes as to what these kids are thinking about.

Mary Grace Gardner (23:05):

Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for, you know, about that. So I, I, it was after I was speaking to some of my students, like I mentioned to are in different countries and actually have some students in China. And when I was talking to them early this year, and this is such a, I know a US mentality, so I'm just going to be upfront about this when I was speaking to them in January. And they were telling me about COVID-19 and being in isolation and wearing masks. And I thought, wow, that is such a, that is such a problem, a big one that I could not imagine ever being here.

Mary Grace Gardner (23:40):

Right. And so when they were talking to me about how they're getting, stir-crazy not going outside and how you're, they're trying to get into academic, doing their academics, all online, I'm thinking, wow, this is just the most intense thing I've ever heard. Like how can that be a whole country shut down? And so I'm going to admit it, but I think the entire world will admit, like you would never have thought that that was going to be here in the United States as well. Like I, in January, I was getting indications where my students were telling me exactly what life is like for them. And then it became exactly our life in March where I realized I had these signs. So early on, not that I could have done anything differently, but I, I saw it early on. And, and so what I was realizing talking to those students kind of through their journey, because they they're on the curb height earlier than we are in terms of our COVID-19 journey.

Mary Grace Gardner (24:33):

I was recognizing that the students I was working with you were going under quarantine and isolation, that they, that they felt isolated. So even though they had these zoom meetings, even though they were at home with their families, their families, we're also coping with, COVID-19 trying to get adjusted to work home situations. It was chaos and students were feeling like I, I have nobody to talk to. I feel alone in my thoughts. And so, so literally this was one of those things where at midnight and woke up and I said, Oh my gosh, what if students had an opportunity to write a journal specifically related to this? And the reason I thought of that was when I was a senior in high school, right at the time I thought this was a silly assignment, but my my AP language arts teacher, he, he assigned for us to do basically a memory book where, so we had finished our exams.

Mary Grace Gardner (25:27):

We had finished the AP test and he had asked us to complete this memory book, where we had to do things like interview an elder in the family, or have your best friend write a letter about you. Or at the time where I went, when I was doing this, it was describe what it was like for you when 9/11 was happening and what, where you witnessed it and how you saw it on TV. And so at the time I thought, Oh my gosh, this is such a fluffy assignment. I've got other things I need to do. But in retrospect it was probably one of the most meaningful assignments I ever did. So that, so that eventually when I was writing about was 9/11, when my, my little brother and I turned on the TV and watched it together as, as we were getting ready for school and, and what a horrific thing to witness together when I had my, my little brother with me or the person who wrote that letter, that best friend who wrote that letter, my best friend in high school ended up coming my husband.

Mary Grace Gardner (26:22):

Right. And so I have that as a memento. And then the person who the family members interview I captured was my grandfather who had passed away. Right? And so these are things that, to me, are this, this absolutely that I thought, well, what if kids could have that today? And so I, in a flurry just sometimes when the thoughts and inspiration comes, it just flows. So I wrote 30 prompts and they said, these are things I think that would help with a student's processing, what's going on. And as they're capturing these things, this can also help inspire them on their college application essays when they're ready to do. So

Sally Hendrick (27:01):

Say this has got to be a huge advantage to already have those thoughts captured raw in the moment. Yeah. Sometimes I mean, and it doesn't matter if it's perfect, you know, how you hear this done is better than perfect. It's just like step out and just do something because you're going to stumble along the way. But that also shows that you're being authentic in the work that you're doing and they can pull back from that. I would have anything you don't give anything to have my thoughts written down when 9/11 happened or when something else happened in my life, because I was Oh, what was I? I was a young mother. Hadn't had my third child yet. So there was a, there was a whole different perspective that you're thinking about at that point in your life. And you can look back on something like that. So that would really be a great, and it also would be a great example for you even going forward for kids in the next, in the coming years, because they're all going to have something they remember from that time.

Mary Grace Gardner (28:07):

Yeah. I mean, like you hit it on the head. It's, it's, it's different when you're trying to recall it later. Right. Versus when you're in the moment and it's all fresh and you're experiencing at this moment. And so, so I put that challenge together and I did it. I didn't really expect there to be much, I didn't expect much of it. I just felt like this was going to be something helpful for people. Let me just put it out there to the world. And so no advertisements or anything, I just put it out. And then I was suddenly getting hundreds of people signing up for it from all around the world. I was getting emails saying, hi from Abu Dhabi. I am, I am on your journal challenge. So I'm not know how it went as far as it did. But I think the really neat thing was I was getting feedback from families saying as a family, the parents signed up for it and they we're talking about it every night during dinner and it's opening up conversations or for little kids, there was a student who said, well, my little sister is getting her crayons.

Mary Grace Gardner (29:03):

She can't write yet, but she's drawing what she feels in response to the actual prompt. And then I was getting feedback from teachers saying that they're actually using it as their daily assignment that's required for their class. And I, I thought, wow, I did not expect any of that. I just thought this was a need I'm seeing that students have. And what a gift to be able to capture your thoughts and be able to look at it 50 years later, show your grandkids, right? This is what was happening during the time of COVID-19.

Sally Hendrick (29:34):

Well, during the time of COVID like loving the time of cholera. Well, okay. So let's move into the very last question, which I always like to ask everybody, what are your hopes that will come out of this? Because we're, we're seeing a lot of changes and a lot of restructuring, and it's almost like crisis management. And then having that on the back burner for what happens in the future. But I think it's going to change the whole fabric of our education system. What do you think?

Mary Grace Gardner (30:11):

I think that this was a reality check in many ways about what's important and what's not right. And so suddenly we realized there were certain things that we value highly like toilet paper. And you're like, I can't imagine that that was to be the hot commodity, right? Yeah.

Sally Hendrick (30:28):

I have a membership now for a toilet paper company in that funny,

Mary Grace Gardner (30:32):

I do, I would never have guessed, but in seriousness, like this, this reset button on what's actually important. And I think in terms of how we're coming out of this, I think especially for the youth, there's so much going on right now with the quarantine situation with this revolution, that's also happening simultaneously 2020 has been such an immensely revolutionary year. I think for students and for youth to realize that they, that they are strong, that they are resilient, that they are able to live through these really hard things and are able to kind of set this, set this new stage of how the world should be. I think that COVID-19 kind of top hold it, toppled, everything for us, right. It toppled our way of life. And it's this reef reset button and opportunity really for youth to be able to differentiate what should the life after 2020 look like

Sally Hendrick (31:32):

There's a BC Before COVID and then I hate to say it, but AD after death, I don't know. I mean, not that weird. I just, you know, it's like

Mary Grace Gardner (31:43):

2020 is just going to be this marker of pre and post what life used to be for us. And I think this is just a, I don't want to say blank slate necessarily, but this is just some new territory that our youth can define and redefine what should be.

Sally Hendrick (32:01):

Yeah, it's this, it's like this giant mental breakdown that is going to create this whole new rebirth, hopefully to make amends for all the things that we've been doing wrong. I feel like we've been chasing greed and money and all these different things. I mean, that's a whole different discussion for another day, but it just feels like there's something that's new and amazing that may be coming out of this. At least that's my hope and vision. I love

Sally Hendrick (32:40):

Seeing that you are in a position to look at life from so many different perspectives. Like a lot of women who are having these extra businesses that they're creating to help the world a little bit differently.

Mary Grace Gardner (32:58):

I think it's just an exciting time to be able to,

Mary Grace Gardner (33:02):

To be able to just step into the ways in which you want to contribute to society. And I think that it's just, there's no better time than the current situation to be able to make the changes that you want to. Exactly. Well, thank you so much, Mary Grace for coming on and I will talk to you saying, all right, thanks so much for having me.

Sally Hendrick (33:22):

You're welcome.

Sally Hendrick (33:31):

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