By Director of College Counseling Michael Wagner
“What’s your story?” is the thought-provoking question Director of College Counseling Michael Wagner asks students.
Pictured here are Oldfields seniors (L to R) April Lee '23, Catherine "Cate" Dayan '23, Mr. Michael "Mike" Wagner, and Chiya Gibson '23.
“What’s your story?“ is what I ask all of our students to think about as they navigate their Oldfields experience and apply for college. Before I explain, allow me to share my story…
I am originally from a small town in southern Minnesota, whose claim to fame is signified by a small blue can, the size of an index card, with large yellow letters. This is a canned cooked pork product called SPAM, renowned throughout the world. My father worked for the company for 37 years, which is what I was also expected to do. College was not even considered an option.
Until one day, college became a reality for me. I began to be recruited by colleges to play football and basketball. One, in particular, was a coach from the University of Northern Iowa who visited my house to meet my parents and explain the football program and academics of the school. Following his visit, I went to the school on an official recruiting visit. The coach would return in February for me to sign a national letter of intent to play football and attend the University of Northern Iowa.
This was my unique college application experience, as my high school had little or no college counseling. I had no story; I just happened to play sports. This experience is what drives my dedication to help the students I serve as they navigate the complex world of the college application process.
After earning my undergraduate degree, my career began in banking, where I worked for 17 years before making a complete career switch and reinvention of my work life to education. Working at an independent school in Los Angeles and conducting an after-school life skills program at two large inner-city public schools in South Los Angeles, I discovered a desire to coach basketball at the high school level. (Little did I know I would also fall in love with the game of volleyball. I am grateful that I now have the true enjoyment of coaching both at Oldfields.)
Through these experiences, I discovered my passion to help young adults navigate the intricate college application process. And in my new line of work, I quickly learned the importance of being able to answer the questions, “Tell me about yourself?“ or, ultimately, “What’s your story?“
After working for 17 years in education in Los Angeles, my wife Dr. Ann, and I decided to combine our love of travel (we’ve been to over 30 countries together) with our educational skills and expertise to pursue education careers internationally. This led both of us to an international school in Wuxi, China, and then to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, only to have our time cut short by the pandemic. Upon returning to Los Angeles, our desire to continue to live internationally led us to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, only to be forced to leave the country because of the ongoing civil war.
After finally returning to Los Angeles, I discovered Oldfields School. I was fortunate to be offered the position of Director of College Counseling, and at Oldfields, I established a college counseling program which takes an in-depth, multi-year approach with a primary focus on helping each student find the right fit—the college, university, gap year, or post-graduate career path—that best meets the needs of the student. Each Oldfields student takes responsibility for their higher education plan, with my active support, as well as that of the faculty.
It is my passion and goal to help students understand and develop their own stories and to be an active participant in setting their goals and thinking about college and beyond. How will they share with others what excites them, their passions, and what goals and ambitions they want to achieve? To help the students I serve, we work together on developing their own experiences and their story that will aid them when a college representative or employer asks, “Tell me about yourself“ or simply "What’s your story?"
What's Your Story?: The Student Perspective - Catherine "Cate" Dayan '23
Entering Oldfields, I was a timid girl who avoided challenges. The support I received was unfamiliar to me at the time so I distrusted it and was unwilling to make any improvements.
As time went on, I began to realize that the encouragement from my peers was genuine, and it pushed me to try new things. In an attempt to find excitement in my new school, I decided to go out of my comfort zone and give horseback riding a try.
Learning about the extensive amount of tasks I had to do for the horse was a responsibility that I never had to take on before. All of the stresses in my life seemed to temporarily disappear. Experiences such as mastering the canter for the first time, winning my first ribbon at a show, seeing the pride in my family’s faces watching me compete, and the feeling of satisfaction when grooming a dirty horse, quickly made horseback riding my favorite pastime. After months of pushing myself I started to rapidly improve. I made it to IEA Nationals in 2022 and was given the opportunity to be the IEA captain my senior year.
These accomplishments made me realize that I wanted riding to be a part of my future. I did some research and found colleges that had equestrian programs. I was hesitant at first and doubted my abilities. I believed that my academic performance was not good enough. Mr. Mike’s support reminded me of the encouragement I received when I first started at Oldfields. I decided to trust him and apply to the schools I wanted to attend. I was able to get into extraordinary riding schools in the area such, as Emory & Henry, Randolph-Macon, and Sweet Briar.
What's Your Story?: The Student Perspective - Chiya Gibson '23
Before I came to Oldfields, I attended a large public school. I did not get the individualized support and attention that many private school students had, and it began to impact my performance in school. I’ve always had aspirations of going to a prestigious university, and I understood that the environment I was in would not help me reach that goal.
In eighth grade, I began looking at other options for my high school career, and my parents brought up Oldfields. When I came to visit, three things caught my attention: how kind and welcoming everyone was, the support the teachers gave their students, and the College Counseling Program.
Reaching the level of confidence in yourself to apply early decision to any university, especially your “dream school,“ is very hard to achieve, yet I have first-hand experience.
I remember at the beginning of the year I asked Mr. Mike a million different questions about my application and writing supplements because I was so worried about doing something wrong and ruining my chances of getting accepted. Every time I had a question, Mr. Mike was thorough in his response. I am glad to have someone as knowledgeable and passionate about college counseling as Mr. Mike. He is part of the reason why I will be attending my dream school in the fall, Vanderbilt University.
Having Mr. Mike as the head of the College Counseling Program is truly an amazing experience. He really knows what he is talking about and he cares. Oldfields students are lucky to have him here to support us.
What's Your Story?: The Student Perspective - April Lee '23
On my second day at Oldfields, I remember sitting in a room covered in college flag pinwheels with Mr. Mike asking me what I plan to do with the rest of my life. Mr. Mike asked, “What do you do? What do you like? What are you passionate about?“ I recall responding, “I play the flute, I like to read, and I’m passionate about sex education.“ Mr. Mike persuaded me to research some colleges. What really convinced me to put in more effort though was when I learned that Mr. Mike was also the basketball coach. I’ve played basketball since I was five years old. Mr. Mike had just become ten times cooler!
Fast forward to the last few weeks of October when Mr. Mike advised me to apply early action, and I applied to eleven schools.
The first acceptance letter I received was two weeks later. My mom found out first, and I immediately ran to Mr. Mike’s office. About two weeks later, I received another acceptance letter, and I ran down from my Jane House room and banged on Mr. Mike’s door. I’ve narrowed down my eleven school acceptances to seven schools. I plan to double major in music education and women, gender, and sexuality studies. Then I am going to get my master’s degree in orchestral conducting.
The first school I got accepted to, Brevard, has me on track for a full tuition scholarship. During the months of January and February, I will be auditioning at all seven schools. Every time I tell Mr. Mike about auditions or about a new acceptance letter, he brings up our first meeting in his office and jokingly points out that I was the “girl who did not care.“ But now I do, and it paid off!
Click here to learn more about Oldfields’ college counseling program