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Last Chance U: Q&A with Brittany Wagner

Brittany Wagner, the famously patient academic counselor from the Netflix series, weighs in on the not-always-perfect pairing of academics and football.

Can you be a breakout star in a documentary? That's what many people are calling Brittany Wagner, the academic counselor at East Mississippi Community College, the school that serves as the subject for the six-part Netflix series Last Chance U. ([clears throat] The documentary is based on a GQ article of the same name, and it got renewed for a second season on Monday.)

Wagner works closely with the athletes at EMCC, making sure they attend class so they can stay on the field and eventually leave the school for a better football team.

<em>Last Chance U</em> Is the Show You Should Binge Watch This WeekendEntertainmentLast Chance U Is the Show You Should Binge Watch This Weekend

Wagner's hands-on approach has made her a fan favorite among those who've watched the show. From reading passages to players, explaining the themes of The Most Dangerous Game or driving to a struggling player's apartment, Wagner clearly goes above and beyond what most people expect of a school counselor. We caught up with Wagner to discuss her newfound fame and the not-always-compatible pairing of football and school.

GQ: A lot of people have been saying you’re the breakout star of this documentary. What has life been like since the documentary went up on Netflix?
BRITTANY WAGNER: My life as I know it hasn’t changed; I’m still a single mom and a counselor in Mississippi. The money in my bank account hasn’t changed.

But I’ve been doing this for a long time and very rarely have I been noticed for it, and the thank-yous for it have been few and far between. To go from that to having hundreds of emails, thousands of Twitter followers, thousands of Instagram followers, I never in a million years. I thought I would inspire some college athletes, I thought I would inspire a few academic counselors to get to know their athletes a little bit better. I’ve gotten emails from all kinds of people. I got an email from a girl this morning saying I changed her life, her whole career path, her motivation for the job she was doing.

What do you think people most misunderstand about the athletes you work with?
I think we tend to think that everyone is like us. As human beings we tend to look at the whole world and think, They’ve had the same experiences I’ve had, they’ve had the same opportunities that I have. When someone isn’t doing what we think they should be doing, we pass judgment. I don’t think that’s fair. These athletes have come from all different walks of life and it’s made them who they are.

I don’t really take the mindset of "I need to mold them into talking like I think they should talk, acting like I think they should act." I take the mindset of "Let’s allow them to be who they are, and make them better, make them grow within who they are." You have to allow people second chances, because what’s the alternative? If we’re not going to educate them, if we’re not going to get to know them and better them in some way, then what’s the alternative? We’re just sending them back to the environment they came from to be a product of our system.

"There are definitely times where I’ve wanted to snap, but I’ve also learned that’s what they expect."

The documentary is, of course, focused on how all these kids want to leave for a better school. Is that the main goal of your job? To make sure the kids can make it to a D-1 team?
I think it’s bigger than that. My title on paper, my job description is going to be very simplified. I schedule their classes, I monitor their academic success, I make sure they’re eligible to play for us, I make sure they’re eligible for the next level. But I think that’s oversimplifying what I do on a daily basis. I think you saw that in the documentary—there was very little eligibility talk when I was on. I think my role is more of a life-coaching, preparing them socially, mentally, and emotionally for life after East Mississippi.

Your temperament is pretty fascinating to watch—you always remain so calm and patient. Do you ever allow yourself to get frustrated?
I definitely get frustrated. I used to not handle situations as gracefully as I do now. There were moments when I had to get in my car and drive around because I had to take some deep breaths or scream in my car. But I started doing yoga about four years ago, and it sounds cliche but I think doing yoga has helped me learn how to stop, take a deep breath and mentally re-focus.

There are definitely times where I’ve wanted to snap, but I’ve also learned that’s what they expect. That’s what they’re used to, someone just constantly screaming, yelling. When I respond a different way it almost catches them off guard, so they hear me a little bit, it sinks in a little more.

Do you ever question why we’re combining football and academics? In your position, does it feel natural to you?
It’s what we’ve always done, so it’s easy to get bogged down in what we’ve always done. But I have had moments where I’ve questioned if this is even relevant anymore. Is college algebra even relevant? That’s a debate the educational system in America needs to have.

With football, several years ago I kind of pitched the idea to a couple colleagues: What if we had a major that was like a pro-sports major? Those top-tier athletes, in any sport, that we thought had the opportunity to play professional sports—what if we let them major in this? Instead of taking college algebra, they took finance. They took a math that was an applied math that helped them balance their checkbook, invest their money. That these classes were lined up more with being a professional athlete rather than putting them through a bunch of curriculum that they would, quite honestly, never use again. Sometimes I do sit in my office and think, when are they ever going to use this again?

"What if we had a major that was like a pro-sports major?"

What’s the angriest you’ve ever been at your job? What was the toughest day?
There’ve been a lot of tough days. Everyone’s been portraying me as a saint or an angel, a lot of positive adjectives. But there have been a lot of “failures” too in my life. There have been athletes who’ve come through here who I never reached. To see them leave with offers on the table and never do anything with their life, that’s a frustrating moment. In the back of my head I’m thinking, Should I have done more or should I have done less? There have been plenty of those.

In the show, you see my interactions with the players. If I could deal with just the athletes, I’d be happy. What you don’t see are my interactions with the adults, and the coaches, and other administrators. Sometimes the adults make you more frustrated than the students do.

Could you see yourself doing anything else?
Yeah, I could. I know that’s not the answer people probably want to hear. But I’ve done this a long time, I could see myself moving into a role that’s less academic advising and more life-coaching. That’s where I’m really passionate. I want to better them in some way. Sometimes the academics gets in the way. They don’t want to listen to me because they think that’s what I’m all about.

I’d love to work with NFL rookies. If the NCAA wanted people on staff who work on player development off the field, that would certainly be something right up my alley.

The interview has been edited and condensed

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