Podcast: Joanna Graham: Expertise, Authenticity, and Purpose

In today’s episode, I chat with Joanna Graham, one of Signet’s Senior Admissions Consultants, to discuss the significance of expertise, authenticity, and purpose in shaping students’ paths, highlighting the transformative power of education. Join us for insights into career navigation and the impact of self-discovery on students’ aspirations.

TRANSCRIPT

Joanna Graham: 

I love this work. Because when I’m able to connect with the students, and they’re able to, for the first time clearly articulate who they are what’s important to them authenticity and purpose first, and then expertise second, that’s a life changing moment for students.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey, folks, welcome back to the podcast and Happy April. I’ve got a real treat for us all today. I know, I probably start almost every episode that way. But it’s true, I really tried to bring you a treat every single week. Today, I’ve got Joanna Graham on the podcast with me, Joanna joined Signet last year, and she’s one of our senior Admissions Consultants. And I couldn’t dream up a better fit for our admissions team than Joanna and she and I connected somewhat randomly through a networking group. And she had already been doing this kind of work for almost 20 years. And it was a no brainer for us to start working together. Because her approach really centers the student in the way that we always try to she’s really interested in helping a student, discover who they are and use those discoveries to fuel their college admissions process. Everything from choosing the schools, they’re going to apply to to thinking of the stories that they want to share in their essays. And she’s had tremendous success. And families who meet her are, like obsessed with her because she is so great. And she really walks the walk here. She’s telling students, you need to know who you are, you need to be able to articulate who you are, you need to understand your strengths. And your why what gets you out of bed in the morning, and how you’re unique and different from everybody else, not to force them to try to be different for the sake of being different. But just understanding how they actually already are different from everybody else. And that makes them really special. And she helps them, you know, discover these things about themselves. While being a person who has discovered these things about herself. She knows what her purpose is. And she really understands her strengths. And she does understand and embrace how she’s a special person. I can’t wait for you to hear from her. So let me stop yammering. Let’s go to the interview. I’ll see you on the other side. Joanna, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m super excited to have you here.

Joanna Graham: 

Thank you for having me, Sheila.

Sheila Akbar: 

So let’s start by talking about how you got into this work. Can you take us through that journey for you?

Joanna Graham: 

Absolutely. You know, for for me, education has been such a transformative experience. Like a lot of students, I was first gen and my family to go to college. Like grew up in the Midwest, neither of my parents knew much about the college education system. But they they did really instilled very early on that education was my ticket to whatever I drove to be possible. And so everything growing up was a focus on you know, doing the best you possibly can in school. And using that as your ticket out. We were We were not particularly wealthy, I will be really candid and say we were pretty poor actually. But my parents sacrificed everything they could and sent my sister me to one of the best private schools in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was a scholarship kid, and really just instilled very early on in me this idea that hard work will pay off and that education can transform lives. I applied to Georgetown early action when I was a senior. And a lot of that was because I had my sights set on being a pediatric oncologist. But at the time, I also really loved the idea that I could study humanities and liberal arts, because I thought that would make me a more well rounded physician. But at the time, Georgetown was the only school in the country that would allow me to be a liberal arts major, and pre med. And so it made the decision process pretty easy for me Georgetown was my top choice. I applied early I got in Thank goodness. But what I will tell you is that navigating that process I’ll back up for just a second was really tough. My parents said to me, you know, I’ll be honest, Admissions Consultants didn’t really exist. And frankly, my family couldn’t afford one even if they did, but my parents said, you know, there’s a public library down the street, good luck, Godspeed. Go figure it out. And you know, and then just tell us where to send the check, because oh my gosh, I’m dating myself but and that during that time, we still send some paper and pencil applications. But I’m almost embarrassed to say it but I think I may have used my mom’s typewriter to fill out my application. I

Sheila Akbar: 

remember those days. It was the same in my day, and you had to type it up and kind of like literally glue stick it in to the application form and you had to make sure that you stopped typing where the margin was and there were so many times where like it would barely fit and then I would just use a pen tool. like finish the hook on the arm or something like that, oh my God, it was an arts and crafts project

Joanna Graham: 

100%. I would like to think that that was factored into the decision making process to see how crafty people can be.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. Your hand eye coordination was a big part of it.

Joanna Graham: 

Exactly.

Sheila Akbar: 

Okay, so you get to Georgetown what happens next.

Joanna Graham: 

So I guess at Georgetown, I was 17 years old, I had skipped a grade growing up as well. So I was already younger than most of my peers. And candidly, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I was adopted when I was very young, I was born in Korea. And I had a Bolivian mom and a German Irish dad. So aside from the fact that no one in Missouri knew what to do with my family growing up, I had never seen another Asian person besides my younger sister, who was also adopted from Korea. So I got to Georgetown and my head exploded, there were people from all sorts of different backgrounds, all shapes, sizes, colors, you name it. And it was such an overwhelming experience. But in the very best way, it really to me validated that I had made the right decision, because I knew that the world was so much bigger than the world that I grew up in. And I knew that these were going to be the people who I would call my peers, my friends, my my network, for lack of a better term, and who were going to help change my life, quite frankly. And honestly, I, I just, I leaned right in, and I never looked back.

Sheila Akbar: 

So I actually didn’t know you are pre med, when you went to college, there’s so many of us who took that path, and then made a turn in another direction. So at some point, you decided not to pursue medicine. And then what?

Joanna Graham: 

So it was interesting, because I had wanted to be a doctor, I had wanted to be a pediatric oncologist since the age of six. And my parents told us funny story about how I came home one day and told them at the dinner table that that’s what I wanted to do. And they asked me how I even knew what those words meant. And I said it well, it’s because you make me read the dictionary, I promise. They were not Tiger parents. But this was an activity that we did. And that’s how I learned what a pediatric oncologist was. But everything that I did as a child, all of the activities that I engaged in all of the volunteer activities, all of the courses, everything I did, from age six through 17, when I went off to Georgetown, was built around this idea of exploring everything regarding medicine. So everything that I did was built around this idea of wanting to be a doctor. And then I got to Georgetown and did the same thing. And I was really fortunate I had incredible classes. I was actually a language and linguistics double major. I was studying French and sociology, and had the good fortune to be able to go abroad my junior year, when I came back from my junior year in preparation for my senior year. That’s when 911 happened. And as most folks know, the whole world changed. And, you know, candidly, I had started, I had started having questions and doubts about my pathway, because the reasons that I wanted to pursue medicine, were 110%, altruistic, I think growing up in a, you know, in an economically disadvantaged family having really just sort of seeing what wealth and privilege could do, and the doors it could open was certainly a big driver for me. But for me, what I really wanted to do with regards to medicine was do something far more altruistic. And I dreamt of going and volunteering or working with mitts on cell phones here in Africa and doing all of these amazing things. But the more that I leaned into medicine, especially during internships that I had a college, the more that I realized that there was a lot of business and red tape around the practice of medicine. And, and frankly, I became a bit disillusioned, and you layer 911 in there and a poor economy and a poor job market. I really started to wonder, you know, what was sort of next for me. So I went through all the motions, I took the MCAT, my senior year, I was working on a research project at a senior thesis, everything was sort of aligning. But I’ll never forget, I woke up one morning, it was May it was a few weeks before graduation. And I looked at my roommate and just said, I don’t want to be a doctor anymore. And it was such a watershed moment for me. And I remember actually my first thought after that was, oh my gosh, my parents are going to disown me, if I tell them that my life’s work and dream has shifted all of a sudden now at age 20. And then my second thought was, oh my gosh, what am I going to do? Because everything that I’ve done for the last 14 odd years or so has been in support of this. And now I have absolutely no idea how I define myself. What do I do next? When really what where do I go from here? And oh, yeah, by the way, I’m graduating in a few weeks. So I SAT down, I regrouped. And I did what I always did. And that was just I started making a list of what are the things that I do know, what are the things that I’m good at and slowly figured it out. I was able to land a job through one of my former internships that I landed in college, I was working as a research assistant for a former Secretary of Health and Human Services from the Reagan administration in support of a book that he was writing on cancer vaccines. He offered me a full time job upon graduation. And and I took it because I thought you know this is it’s better than nothing, it’ll give me a little bit of exposure. And frankly, it really, it aligns really well with some advice that one of my mentors had given me. And that was, you may not necessarily know what you do what to do in life. But by eliminating things via process of elimination, you will figure out the things that you don’t want to do. And eventually you will end up where you need to be. The other thing he told me was, whenever you take a job, or whenever you’re entertaining a job offer, think about what the resume bullets are going to be. And so it may not be the job that you want, and especially for young people graduating from college right now, and and I give this advice to a lot of the young folks, I mentor, you’re not going to get your dream job right out of college. You know, certainly there are a lot of headwinds right now that we’re facing parallels probably to what the economy was like back in 2002. But you know, you may not land that dream job out of college. But if you think about what are the two or three resume bullet points that you could write, for yourself, 12 to 18 months down the road, that will give you a good sense of what are the things that you can try to get out of this next role. And I think that’s a really important, that’s really important way to number one look at the world, but also to think about your career, because No, it’s not always going to pan out the way you want it to. But you can’t sit around waiting for someone to hand you your dream job on a silver platter, because frankly, it’s just never going to come. And so that’s what I did, I jumped right in, I took this job, I basically I accomplished the bullets that I’d set out in my mind. And then Admittedly, I moved into the world of test prep, I started teaching as at prep during nights and weekends. Because I realized really quickly it was expensive to live in Washington, DC. And frankly, my research assistant salary was just not quite cutting it. So I moved into test prep and realize that even though this was not the industry that I imagined myself in, there were a lot of really relevant business skills that I could develop. And so I applied for a job as director of operations on a whim, knowing that I was completely under qualified, but was really confident in looking at the job description that I could do the work and that I could figure things out along the way. And maybe by some small miracle, I landed the job. And that was how I sort of segwayed into this wonderful wild world of higher education, standardized testing and admissions.

Sheila Akbar: 

And then you spent some time in the Georgetown admissions office as well. How did that come about?

Joanna Graham: 

I did. So I read applications at Georgetown for two years. They have a really interesting committee structure where they include faculty, Dean’s students, the committee is comprised of a variety of different folks. And it’s really interesting because every person on the committee gets an equal vote. And so I spent two years reading applications for the college I absolutely loved it. And I realized after I graduated from college that this, this experience was invaluable. For me, it was second nature. But for a lot of folks who are applying to college for the first time, especially to a selective institution, there’s so much mystique that sort of shrouds the idea of admissions, that wouldn’t it be cool if I could turn this into something entrepreneurial. And so I started, thanks to my test prep tutoring. That was a perfect audience to start pitching ad con services to. And so that’s how I started building my own practice back in 2002, and 2003, I’ve been running with this on a very, very small scale in the DC area now for the past 20 plus years, but have really just enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to try and share some of this knowledge and be a guide for many families.

Sheila Akbar: 

I have so many questions, but let’s kind of like complete the picture a little bit, your career from that point on involved operations in testing and admissions at various levels, college, graduate business school, right. And you you became a marketing executive. And that’s actually how we met through our networking group chief. And I remember you reached out to me, and I didn’t know much about you, I assumed you had a teenager or you wanted to talk to me about our services. And you’re like, No, actually, I do this work. And we’d love to talk to you more about working together. And then the rest is kind of history, you’ve been such an amazing addition to our team and such a great fit, values wise and culturally and bring so much experience and you’ve seen so many different kinds of students that you’ve just been such an amazing asset. So I would love to hear you talk about how your own personal journey, thinking you are pre med, trying to figure out by process of elimination, what you actually wanted to do, and that your journey into education, has an influence or has, uh, has shaped the way you mentor students.

Joanna Graham: 

You know, I tell every family I speak with that. My goal and working with every student is to be the counselor or to be the advisor that I wish that I had had. Now granted, I tell every family you could probably figure this out yourself. I certainly figured it out 20 plus years ago, but the landscape is incredibly complex right now, I do not envy anyone applying to college these days. But my goal is to really help families distill a lot of that white noise and then all distractions there and really set things up so that students are focused on 10 yard targets. Ultimately, everyone knows what the end goal is. I mean for most of the students, with the exception of a handful, but most of the students I work with know what that end goal that is and that is to start at a four year institution a few months after they graduated from high school. The whole I I think the whole process can be incredibly overwhelming. And so working with families to kind of identify what are the 10 yard targets, what are the two or three things that I absolutely need to focus my time and energy on over the next 30 to 60 days, and then continuing to optimize that. And to continue to build on that, you know, I tell families, my job is to is to filter. And so yes, there’s a lot of noise about everything from standardized testing and test optional to the Supreme Court ruling to legacy admissions. I mean, the reality is, it affects a very small percentage of the population. But more importantly, for the average family or for most families, that is not going to change the way that you conduct yourself on a day to day basis. Applications, and admissions are such a holistic process that span, you know, the full four years of a high school students career. And so yes, while there certainly are some large as a broad brush macro trends at play, I mean, the vast majority of what is going to help students stand out, is going to be the work that they’re doing day in and day out. And my job really is to help keep them focused and on track to make sure that they’re doing everything in the moment that they can to maximize their potential and to really help them have the building blocks to really tell a great story. And, you know, Sheila, to your point, you know, the marketing background, I think, is really what has helped me sort of shaped the way that I coach, and the methodology that I use with students. I love the idea of and I don’t want to be overly corporate when I say this, but I love the idea of helping students articulate what their personal brand is. Because when you think about it, college admissions in some ways, are really just another example of a product market fit exercise in marketing. Yes, absolutely. It’s not to say that a student needs to change their brand or manipulated in any way. But you absolutely need to understand how your profile and what you bring to the table aligns with what a school is looking for. And I share with a lot of families that you know, one of the first things you should do, if you have a dream school, is go to their website, look up their mission statements, that is where a student’s school is going to tell you exactly what they value. And if your values align with the school’s value. Fantastic. That’s a great first step, then it’s just a matter of figuring out how do you now start talking about and articulating, the differentiators in what you bring to the table? Because, you know, and I’ll tell a lot of students, you know, yes, you’re, you’re probably all brilliant and wonderful and perfect. However, there are also going to be 10s of 1000s of other students who are brilliant and wonderful and perfect, who have great grades, who play a varsity sport, who are the president of some club or maybe have started a club. What really makes a difference is showing schools and stitching together this narrative that starts to connect all those dots so that they can understand what are those key decision points? What are the things that you have done over those over the course of those four years to really show a school? How have you grown and developed as a person? How have you developed, you know, executive functioning skills, essentially, and really what is driving you, I talk a lot about personal brand building being rooted in three things, this idea of expertise, authenticity, and purpose, expertise. That’s, that’s the stuff that you’re good at. And every student can usually rattle off that list pretty quickly. But it’s when you start thinking about authenticity and purpose purpose, what gets you out of bed in the morning? So yes, you may be a physics whiz, you may you know, AP Calculus BC may have been a walk in the park for you. But if that’s not what gets you out of bed in the morning, it’s really important to think about what does and then how does that align with the things that you are very good at. And then that third piece, the authenticity piece is, you know, what makes you uniquely you? And so if you were to ask your friends, if you were to ask your teachers, your parents, anyone who knows you, well, how would they describe you. And if there’s a bit of a misalignment in the way that you think of yourself in the way your friends and family talk about you, that’s absolutely something to explore. And that’s a lot of that really colors, a lot of the work that I do with students as well.

Sheila Akbar: 

I love that so much. I really love seeing when students can take advantage of the opportunities that are right there in front of them. Because so much of the time students are almost paralyzed by this fear of like, I have to make the right strategic decisions so that I can go to this or that college. But if you know yourself your expertise, what’s authentically you, and what connects to that sense of purpose and meaning, you’re going to make decisions in the moment that naturally make you the best version of you, which makes you the best candidate for the schools that want a student like you. Right. So it’s much more about the day to day than any sort of secret strategy that we can help them with, right? But of course, parents have a hard time connecting with their students around this, through no fault of the parents own kids don’t want to talk to their parents about this. But they are much more willing to talk to someone like you or me, right? Even if we’re gonna say the exact same thing mom and dad say they hear it from us differently. So I don’t know if you have one handy, but can you give us an example of a conversation or an exercise you do with students just try to get that conversation rolling?

Joanna Graham: 

Absolutely. So one of the exercises that I do with my students is I call it the top 25 exercise, and I should I should give credit where credit is due. This is is a riff off of one of these essays from years ago. And the idea was, you know, sit down and tell us 25 things about yourself. And so I always tell students, you know, sit down, you’re going to set a timer for 30 minutes. And I want you to just write down 25 things about yourself. No rules, no guidelines to sit down and write down 25 things. It could be a song title, it could be a book title, it could be a story, it could be a word, but then let the timer go for 30 minutes. Most students don’t get beyond 12 to 15 items, it is really tough. And then I tell them after the timer goes off, walk away on the honor system, walk away, and then come back 24 to 36 hours later, set another timer for 15 minutes, and go back and look at that list and prioritize that. So ranks docket. So if you were sitting down with the Director of Admissions at your dream school, and you only could tell them the first three to four things on that list? How would you prioritize that list? And we use that as a roadmap to start exploring? What are the things again, that define who a student is? What drives them? It’s really interesting. And honestly, we ended up using that document for many students as that single source of truth. So that well that we go back to when we’re looking for inspiration for essays, when we’re talking about what are some of the things or you know, what are the some of the positive character attributes you want your teachers to talk about in your letters of rec? How do you want to talk about yourself? How do you want to be perceived in your application, and there’s just such a wealth of information that comes from that exercise. It’s funny, I introduce it fairly early in the engagement, I don’t typically give students a ton of context around it. And the the number of puzzle books that I get from students, you know, is it’s pretty high. But the number of students who have come back to me, when they graduate senior year have said, I’m taking that roadmap with me to college as a reminder of who I am. I think that’s, that’s probably some of the best feedback that I’ve received. And it’s incredibly powerful.

Sheila Akbar: 

What a gift. That’s amazing. I do something similar with my students, they again, they don’t know what we’re after here. But I think it has something to do with helping them become aware of themselves, and how they want to show up in the world. Right? How am I showing up right now? Who do I want to be? And how do I close that gap? Right. And that sounds a lot more like therapy, or maybe even parenting? When you do and under the umbrella of college admissions, there is an an urgency about it, that they’re like, all right, whatever it takes, I got to do this thing. And I’m like, Just trust me, it’s going to help with everything, it’s gonna help you make decisions about how to invest your time, it’s gonna help you make decisions about what to write your essays about, it’s gonna help you choose the right colleges for you. So it’s absolutely so so valuable in such a simple exercise.

Joanna Graham: 

Oh, my gosh, absolutely. And it helps with everything from resume building, you know, I tell students, my job is not to hand you fish or to sell you fish. I am. That’s not, that’s not the business that I’m in. But I am willing to teach you how to fish. And that’s what I do is I teach kids how to fish essentially. Because these skills, I’m sure you’ve seen this to shield with your students, these are skills that they’re going to use when they apply to that first internship, when they apply to that first job. These are skills that they’re going to be able to leverage time and time again. And the more that they do it, the more that they will, you know, continue to sort of build that repository that they have of stories of skills of positive character attributes, that they can then really clearly articulate on their own instead of having to do that exploratory work. So it’s, it really is the gift that keeps on giving. I’d like to think.

Sheila Akbar: 

For sure. I mean, I know exactly why this is so meaningful to me. But I’d love to hear you share about why you continue to do this work. How is this connected to your purpose?

Joanna Graham: 

You know, for me, and I mentioned this a little bit at the beginning, Georgetown changed the trajectory of my life, it was the most transformative experience for me. And I think that I was fortunate that I figured out, you know, I had one of those lightning bolt moments that said, this is my dream school, this is my purpose, this is what I want to do. And the fit was there. I think for a lot of students, there’s so much noise, there’s so much. There’s so many distractions, quite frankly, between media, social media, the internet, you name it. And frankly, I think kids are just over scheduled and over committed. And so they don’t always have the ability to take the time and think about what’s important to them, and sort of what they’re what really sort of, you know, who they are as people. And so for me, I love this work. Because when I’m able to connect with the students, and they’re able to, for the first time clearly articulate who they are what’s important to them the authenticity and purpose first, and then expertise. Second, that’s a life changing moment for students. And you know, when I think about the hundreds of students I’ve worked with over the last 22 years, and it maybe this is a testament to the work that I do with them. But the number of students I’m still in touch with to this day, whose careers I’ve been able to see grow and thrive and flourish. It just It tells me that when the fit is there, education really is this rocket ship that transforms lives and that is that’s why I keep coming back to this well every year.

Sheila Akbar: 

I love it. I feel like I could talk to you for hours about this but I think this is probably a pretty good place to leave it I’m sure we’ll have you back from More. But thank you again for your time today, this was an awesome conversation.

Joanna Graham: 

Thank you so much, Sheila, I appreciate it.

Sheila Akbar: 

So I definitely could talk to Joanna for hours and hours about this. And I’m sure you all would love to listen to her. So we’ll definitely have her back. But I think that that metaphor of the product market fit for students when they’re thinking about building their college list, I think is so powerful. And we can have our feelings about the idea of turning students into a brand, I don’t think we’re talking here about creating a brand out of nothing, but rather realizing they already are a brand. And helping them lean into their actual strengths and unique differences and things like that, I think is a really smart way to both look at this process, but also communicate about it to students who, you know, are exposed to the world of brands every day, and something really tangible that they can hold on to. So I hope that that was helpful for you. And you know, just one more note here, before we sign off, I know a lot of students got their admissions results this last week, or maybe in the prior couple of weeks. And some of you may be waitlisted. Definitely tune in next week to what you can do about a waitlist. But I do hope that you have some results that you’re very happy about. And I also hope that if you have some results that you’re not so happy about, you’re not taking it as a personal judgment on how good of a student you are, what your potential is, how good of a person you are. This has nothing to do with any of that. It has everything to do with the institution’s priorities, and some people are going to be a fit for those priorities and some people are not, and you wouldn’t have wanted to sell yourself out just to be a fit anyway, you are far more important. So I hope that gives you some solace and some comfort. And if there’s anything I can do to help, please reach out. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you next week. Bye.

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