The Search, S2, Episode Eight Transcript

The Search

Meet Heath, Our Student Podcaster

Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, I'm Lee Coffin, dean of admissions and financial aid. Welcome to The Search.

"I don't know my major, but I do know I want to learn more about human beings, including myself." That's the first sentence in the application to Dartmouth College from Heath Monsma. He's a senior at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and that sentence, which began his introduction of himself to the college during early decision, kind of set in motion a narrative that introduced a storyteller to Dartmouth. His U.S. history teacher said he's really interested in examining the lives of other people, and that makes sense. He's editor in chief of his school newspaper. He's the president of the debate team, so he's quick on his feet. And, as an alumni interviewer said, Heath is a storyteller. He's passionate about talking with people and telling their stories.

And, I had a little light bulb moment where I thought "Heath needs to come on the podcast and interview me." So, Heath, hello. Welcome to The Search.

Heath Monsma:
Hi. Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

Lee Coffin:
You're really welcome. I'm excited to have you here as my guest host this week. And, you wrote your supplemental essay to Dartmouth about podcasts. So, could you read to us the 200 words you wrote? You were answering a question about what drives you to create and what you hope to make or what have you already made. And, your answer was about podcasting. So, share with us what you wrote.

Heath Monsma:
Okay. Absolutely. So, I wrote that "I am podcast obsessed and rabidly consume sports podcasts like Sports with Katie Nolan, true crime series like Missing in Alaska, and interview-style programs like The Joe Rogan Experience and Dartmouth's own The Search. Podcasts have given me so much joy. I tried twice without success before junior year to create my own. Those failed attempts taught me that making an entertaining podcast is hard. Audio editing is tricky, microphones are temperamental and under-preparing can lead to 30 boring minutes of rambling. So, I tabled the podcast idea until one day last fall. After school, I stopped to say hi to Ms. Roldan, my history teacher. We started talking about her childhood and as Ms. Roldan told me about growing up poor in a wealthy town, I lost track of time. Later, as I raced to hockey practice, I realized that I had a new podcast idea. I interviewed teacher about their teenage years and how that impacted their teaching style. I enlisted my friend James, who's also a podcast enthusiast, and together, we created TBD, Teaching-Based Discussion. We lined up teachers to interview, starting with Ms. Roldan.

Something magical happened in those conversations and it was compelling to hear about teachers at my age. One teacher was open about his battle with depression. Another talked about the impact of her parents' divorce. A few weeks into recording, we hit a road block, COVID-19, and had to go on hiatus. But by late summer, we had begun recording remotely. Creating TBD helped me gain technical and interviewing skills, but more importantly, taught me the value of connecting with my teachers. This is one reason Dartmouth's small classes and access to my professors is so appealing.

The experience also ignited my interest in podcast hosting. I'd love to try recording at Dartmouth's broadcast studios."

Lee Coffin:
And so, Heath, in the spirit of that essay and the conversations you have with your teachers at Pioneer High, I'd like to have a conversation that you lead with me. So, one of the tricks of being a dean of admission is the title sounds so big and scary and I often feel like that scene in The Wizard of Oz at the end when Toto runs up and pulls the curtain and Dorothy says, "Why, you're just a man," when she sees the Wizard. And, I think this conversation is a way to say to students and their parents that the people who work in admissions are just like you and me. And, I think, like your teachers, you said to me the other day, they stopped being two-dimensional figures in front of a classroom and they became people.

So, I think that's the opportunity today. So, Heath, the mic is yours.

Heath Monsma:
Fantastic. Well, so, I wanted to start at a part that we've all gone through before you reach that dean of admission status and I want to talk about before even your college application process, what you were like in early childhood, what growing up in your family was like, what your parents did, what your town was like.

Lee Coffin:
Sure. So, the origin story.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm. The origin story.

Lee Coffin:
Oh, the origin story. So, I'm the oldest of five kids and I grew up in Shelton, Connecticut, which is a little town sort of halfway between Bridgeport and New Haven, but in metro New York City, I would say is kind of the bigger kind of footprint. You know, it was a town where people didn't go off to private colleges. Certainly, most... If you went to college, you usually went to the state university. As I wandered through childhood and into high school, I was... I was that nerdy smart kid. I liked athletics, but I wasn't particularly athletic. I was a reader. I was the editor of the student newspaper, so we have that in common.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
I was in the drama club. I worked at McDonald's and after I got my driver's license, I'd go after school and do the afternoon shift or sometimes on Fridays, I'd do the evening shift because that was my way of making some money, saving for college, but also learning about how to work, how to be part of a team. That moment when the football game would let out and the lobby would fill up and I'd be like, "Oh, boy. I got to cook all these hamburgers."

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Lee Coffin:
But, you know, that was... So, when I was growing up, I knew I was college-bound. I didn't really know how to get there. I was in the big public school. There wasn't a lot of one-on-one guidance about how to do it. And, because my mom and dad hadn't gone to college, it was a mystery to me and this was pre-internet, so the mystery was even more complicated because I couldn't log on and discover things.

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
So, I had to kind of make my way forward. You know. College was the moment in my life that changed the arc of it and I say that a lot to, when I meet students who are also first-gen, that when you apply to and get into college and then, like me, get financial aid to go along with it, it is a moment in your family history that sets you on a really different path.

Heath Monsma:
I'm curious about how aware you were of who you were at that point in time, because a lot of the time, colleges put on teenagers to tell them who they are, what they're passionate about.

Lee Coffin:
Mm-hmm

Heath Monsma:
And, I'm curious about how big of a grasp you had on those types of big questions.

Lee Coffin:
If you had said to me, the teenage high school senior version of me, I would have said,  I'm going to be a journalist. And, in the yearbook, the prophecy was I was going to be the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Didn't happen. But, you know, interestingly, this podcast kind of taps into that ancient part of me which... I think what we both have in common is I think of myself as a storyteller.

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
You know, not formally in journalism, but I tell the story of the college where I work and then I invite students to tell their stories and in that reading of the stories, put together a community that is a story with many parts. But journalism was where I was thinking. I also had a really strong interest in politics.

Heath Monsma:
Okay.

Lee Coffin:
And so, I think in my head, I was thinking I'm going to be a political reporter. And, I was probably atypical of my peer group where on election night, I would watch the TV. I would pore over the results the next day in the newspaper and look at precinct... [inaudible 00:08:47] the data of an election, like which candidate got how many votes, how were the polls right or wrong. And, I still do that.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, living in New Hampshire gives me a really wonderful place to... Particularly during the New Hampshire primary, I feel like I have a ringside seat.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
But those two things were what were really on my mind. You know, politics and journalism and always writing. I mean, you know, using words to express myself.

Heath Monsma:
With that potential lack of college guidance from your public school, how did you find out what liberal arts schools were interesting?

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. It was serendipity.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, the college admissions circa 1980... You know, you took the SAT and almost... Or, the PSAT and then the SAT. And, your mailbox started to explode with brochures.

Heath Monsma:

Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
I think that still happens, but I think it's more email than brochures.

Heath Monsma:
Yes.

Lee Coffin:
But I actually read all the brochures. So, I would bring them in and I would sit at the dining room table and I would make piles of them. My mother thought I should be a librarian because I was really good at sorting things and categorizing them. But I was reading through them and kind of looking for clues about what made sense and did I see myself. And, some of them were places I'd never heard of, but I liked the story they were telling about themselves. But that's how I discovered Syracuse, which was one of the journalism schools I applied to and... And, I just sort of followed my instincts and I didn't know if that was the right thing to be doing, but I didn't really know.

So, I relied on the brochures and then I would write back and say, "Please send me more information." And then, I would get catalogs and I would read those and I would re-read them and I would get course catalogs and I'd spend time looking through the political science department and the English department and seeing are these courses that sounded like ones I'd like to take. And, I made the list.

Lee Coffin:
And, then, you know, I applied. You know, I applied to five. I mean, these were the days when you didn't apply to more than a few.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
So, I applied to two liberal arts colleges, two journalism schools and University of Connecticut and that was that.

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
And, when it was... I think, looking back... I mean, the world today is so... The information universe of today is so accessible in the way it wasn't then.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
It sounds quaint as I tell you, "Yeah, I got brochures in the mailbox and I read them." And... You know? And, my neighbors... I had a... My fifth grade teacher lived nearby and she used to come up to me in the supermarket and say, "I made another list for you." And, I would take Mrs. Morgan's list home and I would do some research where I could. But there was no guidebooks.  I mean, the world of admissions, a search from then was really different. I mean, there were no rankings. There were no guidebooks. There was no internet. There was no social media.

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
You either had a family that knew how to tell you where to go, a school that told you where to go, or you trusted what the mailman brought every day.

Heath Monsma:
Well, it sounds insane and hilarious to me that you would receive those brochures and then write back to the colleges, mail letters back to the colleges.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
Because I can't imagine that there are many kids doing that in today's environment. No.

Lee Coffin:
And, they would write back. They would say...

Heath Monsma:
Great.

Lee Coffin:
Literally, "Thank you for your interest. Here's the information you requested."

Heath Monsma:
Yeah.

Lee Coffin:
And, the other thing, too, is the applicant pools weren't as big.

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
So, people who did my job then were counselors and were doing much more one-on-one work. But what's interesting when I think about the job I've had for the last 31 years, I never took a college tour. Now, when the college admission people would come to... If they came to my high school. I never went to see them. I didn't know that that was something I was supposed to do. So, it's sort of ironic that I've had this job in admissions where I'm doing all this outreach and visiting schools and having conversations with their school counselors or parents or kids. I didn't do any of that.

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
Until I got in, and then in April of my senior year, my mom and dad and I went and visited the places that accepted me. But that was... That was it.

Heath Monsma:
Well, I think in a funny way, that's kind of what seniors today are dealing with.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
In that we can't really visit campuses. And, while there are these great virtual resources to pick up on schools and sit through information sessions, it's not quite the same as going to the one at your school with the physical admissions counselor and presentation, I don't think.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. I hadn't thought of that. You're right. It's like a throwback moment.

Heath Monsma:
In a way, sure.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
You ended up at Trinity College, right?

Lee Coffin:
I did. Yep.

Heath Monsma:
A liberal arts school, much like Dartmouth.

Lee Coffin:
Yep.

Heath Monsma:
Maybe a little bit smaller.

Lee Coffin:
Little smaller.

Heath Monsma:
Little smaller. And, was it then in college that you discovered your interest in the college admissions process? Or, how long did you believe that you were still going to be a journalist?

Lee Coffin:
That shifted pretty quickly. You know, once I actually got to college, my horizon just broadened, you know? I started meeting people who were saying, "Oh, I'm going to do this and I've got this summer plan." And, I started to dream in different ways. I still love journalism, but I ultimately became a history major, which I never thought about when I was in high school. But I took a course and then I took another course and then I took another course and I realized this storytelling of the history of the world really appealed to me. And so, then I had this other kind of existential question, like, well, what does the history major turn into?

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
And, you know, I had my dad, who worked at the car dealership, saying, "What the hell are you going to do with a history degree?". And, I said, "I don't know."

Heath Monsma:

Become a historian?

Lee Coffin:
Become a historian.

Heath Monsma:
Yeah.

Lee Coffin:
Well, that's what I think a lot of people assumed. And so, for a while, I thought about law school.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
That felt like a natural extension of an undergrad degree in history. And, I had done an internship in the Connecticut State Senate and politics was still bubbling there. And, I got to my senior spring in college and there was a job posting at Trinity for... It was a one-year position in the alumni office working with young alumni and undergraduates, what they were calling a class identity initiative, and I thought, "That sounds interesting." And, I had been applying for jobs as a teacher and I had looked at some publishing jobs in New York and had applied to law school and gotten in but wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do. And, you know, sometimes opportunity lands on your doorstep in ways that you weren't expecting it to.

And so, applied for the job, got it. It was supposed to be a one-year gig. I stayed for four.

Heath Monsma:
Okay.

Lee Coffin:
And, during those four years, one of my colleagues in the admission office... I had been working on alumni admissions and interviewers and Jane said, "You really need to... You should be an admission officer.  You have the perfect mix of skills to do that." So, I went to grad school at Harvard and did my master's in administration and planning, and when I graduated, I took a job in admissions at Connecticut College and didn't look back.

That was literally 31 years ago. It was the spring of 1990. I got my first college admissions job and I immediately knew this is what I was supposed to do.

Heath Monsma:
Great. Well, so, what in your personal values kind of resounded with you during that process? What was the set of skills that was mentioned that you have that really suited well to an admissions officer?

Lee Coffin:
So, for me, it was the perfect combination of all the things I was thinking about in separate sectors. So, it was the part of me that wanted to be a journalist or was thinking about publishing. There was a capacity to tell a story, to work on publications like the ones I'd gotten in the mailbox and read. There was the comedian drama club president in me. I like the idea of standing on a stage and entertaining people as I introduce the college to them. The part of me that wanted to be a teacher got to work with high school juniors and seniors and not be in the school with them, but be adjacent to it and to feel like, okay, I can help guide them in a way that my guidance counselor couldn't.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, maybe that last piece is what kept me going the most, where I realized that the work I was doing at Conn for 11 years and then at Tufts and then at Dartmouth gave me this opportunity to change lives. And, that sounds really... I paused before I said that because that sounds so corny. But I think at the end of the day as I watch a class come together every spring, I'm struck by this, the... I keep using the word serendipity, but the serendipity of these people, you, coming into contact with other people from around the world and how that chemistry kind of creates a campus and then the people in that campus see their lives moving in new ways.

So, I loved that. When I was in grad school, studying kind of academic administration and management, I realized that admissions was one of those roles in a college environment where what happened in that office really mattered.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
You know, people cared about who was getting in and what the college profile looked like. And, the media wasn't as attuned to college admissions as it is now, but there were still stories about college admissions and the trustees, I noticed, were paying close attention to it and the faculty had lots of opinions about it. I thought this is one of those jobs where you're in a space and ultimately as the dean, in a seat where it matters.

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
The work we're doing. And, that's what's propelled me all these years. But all the way back at the beginning, I liked the way the job changed from season to season. You know, there was a travel component where I got to go and meet people where they lived. There was this reading component which drew off of my skill as a history major, where I would have to read a lot of books really quickly and digest those….

Heath Monsma:
Dense texts.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. And then, there was this committee moment where you're in a room with each other, debating the merits of each student and shaping a community, and then you pop out of that and you've got, in a non-COVID year, a campus full of accepted students and their parents, and you've got to, again, tell the story, meet them, help them think about their options, and then it kind of repeats itself. And, I liked that cyclical nature and I would see friends of mine who had jobs that seemed to be constant over the top months.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, I thought, yeah, my job's not constant. It always twists and there's variety to it.

Heath Monsma:
And so, it sounds to me like a lot of what drew you to the job is connecting with these kids and being able to guide them on an individual level. Did it ever cross your mind to then kind of inhabit more of the guidance counselor role? Or, have you made an effort, rather, as an admissions officer, to speak to the students in high schools as opposed to just being more of the stereotype of a gatekeeper?

Lee Coffin:
That's a good question.

So, I never... I did work at a high school for a couple of years and then came back to the college realm. That just felt more like my organic space. But I've stayed in college admissions because I felt like that was the space where I had a direct ability to make an action. And also, because financial aid was such an important part of my life, the other piece of my work that's really motivated me for the 30 years I've been doing this is just being a champion and access via financial aid, like owning the way it put my life in a different path and to help generate those resources and make sure kids are able to get the kind of scholarship they need to make college happen, so...

But I think as an admission officer, I mean, the gatekeeper tag is true. I mean, you know, we are the ones who have to decide who gets in or not. But our... When you talk to admission officers, we will say we're admission counselors.

Heath Monsma:
Got it.

Lee Coffin:
So, for most of the year, when we're not reading files, we are helping you, like, literally you, Heath, think about your options. And, you mentioned my podcast in your supplement. The podcast was a form of counseling. It was a way in the pandemic to offer advice and guidance through this medium because it was the only one that was available to me when the world turned upside down.

Heath Monsma:
Well, I think one thing that I've noticed you advocating for specifically in some of the blog posts and across your podcast episodes I listened to is a real transparency in the admissions process. Sounds like it's really important to you. And, I personally feel like we may have a long way to go in that regard in terms of the fact that everyone, I feel like, thinks that the high ranking schools are a crap shoot, for lack of a better term.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
What does a world, to you, in which there's transparent admissions, look like? And, do you think that we can achieve that anytime soon?

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. The journalist just showed up and asked a really good question. That's very observant of you. I am, for my career, committed to being transparent. And, I say that kind of with a comma, to the degree that I can be. Because, you know, when you're working in admission, there are confidentiality issues that you need to uphold and as you read a file, what I see in the file might not be evident to other people. But I think the challenge of being an admission officer in a place like Dartmouth, where you have significant volume that outpaces the size of the class.  I mean, look at your class. Over 28,000 people applied for 1,150 seats. So, the crap shoot kind of vibe comes from this idea that you apply and the application disappears and then the decision comes back a few weeks later. You're like, "Well, how did this happen?"

And, you know, there's just so much transparency you can bring to the way all of those files were read and assessed and ultimately a decision was rendered. But I think the transparency I try and embody is to make it less mysterious. And, I like to make myself as present as I can be in schools, to media. And, I think the more I can speak plainly about the work I do and have people say, "Oh. That makes sense." And, to take some of the conspiracy away from the work. It's not random. I mean, that's been a theme in lot of the episodes, where a lot of my colleagues and guests have said there is... This is an intentional process. It's subjective, particularly when you're in a very selective admission space and you have a lot of high quality people to consider and everyone can't be invited into the class, and that... That's just a truth. I try not to apologize for that because it's just the reality of putting yourself into an applicant pool like the one where I've worked. But I think doing what we can as admission officers and personally as a dean to explain things, to underscore that there is a humanity to what we're doing.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, throughout this podcast, both seasons, the word "reassuring" has been my guiding kind of marker. Like, how do I reassure people?

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
That they have the agency to move forward?

Heath Monsma:
Well, I think that what really stuck out to me in that answer was the distinction between the words randomness, like that kind of a crap shoot infers, and then it's subjective. It's a subjective process.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
And, those are two very different concepts. But as it is a subjective process, you... As a very empathetic person, you just said you wanted to see the humanity in people and hear their stories. How do you reconcile the huge number of kids that don't get in at the end of the day? Do you just...? I feel like... I feel like we have a lot in common and just get too attached to each individual application.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's awful.

Heath Monsma:
Yeah.

Lee Coffin:
It's awful, Heath. This year more than any other, I mean, because the volume—We had a 33% increase, which was sort of a pandemic-fueled frenzy of let's apply and see what happens. We're worried. And, I got to a point in early February where I was reading files and everybody was wonderful and in a true confessional moment with you, I called a friend of mine who is a retired dean and I said, "I need you to walk me through a moment. I'm a bit immobilized by the experience I'm having where I'm having a hard time saying no."

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
And, she said, "Then, focus on saying yes." Which, of course, that was the answer.

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
But it was like, when she said it, I... On my phone, I keep... Now, I keep a daily journal. It's called 2021 Day At A Time and that's the title of the note and I wrote a note to myself about focus on yes. My title is dean of admission.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm. Not dean of rejection.

Lee Coffin:
Exactly. I am an admission officer, so read a file and find... Do what you can to find a path toward yes for every student I met, and knowing that a different part of the process, choices needed to be made that limited my ability to say yes. But focusing on yes was the way I kept my moral compass. As I signed your letter and the other 1,748 letters this year.

Heath Monsma:
That green pen.

Lee Coffin:
That green pen. Each time I scribbled my name, I thought, "Okay. This is the exclamation point. I'm focusing on yes."

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, I was aware of the significant queue of no's or maybes because there's some people on the wait list and that's a maybe. But the no's, to your question, is the most poignant part of being an admission officer. It is the most complicated emotional part of the job I do.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
There are limits to how much I can say yes.

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
And, that's where I go to the... You know, I said, okay. For all the idealism I bring to my work, there's also a practical dimension to it, too. I work at a college with 1,150 spaces in the incoming class and the way I've kind of thought about it is it's an additive process. One by one, I say, okay. Heath took a seat. Susan took a seat. Jeremy took a seat. And, ultimately, the seats have someone in them and we're done.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, it's not that Michael, the next student in the line, wasn't deserving. It's just you fill...

Heath Monsma:
There's only so many seats.

Lee Coffin:
There's only so many seats. That's how I make peace with it as a dean of admission.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
And, I mean, as you hear me say that, does that make sense?

Heath Monsma:
Yes, it does.

Lee Coffin:
From a student perspective?

Heath Monsma:
And, it seems representative... Not to zoom out too far, but it seems representative of life in that if you're trying to effect positive change on the lives of these students, that there's very few professions in which that is the only part of the metaphorical iceberg, that on the other side, there's going to be some negatives, too, of people who didn't get in. So, that does... That does make a lot of sense when you explain it that way.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
Just in that same vein of the application kind of... There's a data side of an application, which is the grades and the transcripts and the tests, and then there's the human side, which is the essays and the recommendations, and that, I think, seems to be the side that you identify with more. Do you think that that might expand in the future with the advent of test optional?

Lee Coffin:
I think the narrative part of an application is shockingly overlooked by most applicants.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
That the data is the data. It's fundamental. It certifies your ability to do the work at the college in question and to some degree, it sorts... It sorts the pool into the super high achievers and to a degree, less so. But, you know, where I work, we're talking about outstanding versus excellent. It's not like... These are... These are very fine distinctions. But the numbers all by themselves... I can look at your transcripts, like literally, Heath Monsma's transcript, and see a lot of A's. But those A's don't tell me about your curiosity. They don't tell me that you're quick on your feet. They don't tell me that you lean into storytelling and that you're a really good listener because your questions are born out of listening. And, those are very important qualities, just to give you a compliment.

Heath Monsma:
Thank you. I appreciate that.

Lee Coffin:
That... Yeah. That animates the person that you are and it's not shocking to me that you do newspaper and debate and lots of other things, too. But those two in particular really resonate with the person who's been having this conversation with me. And so, if I just stopped with your grade point average, that's impressive. But holistically, the hockey playing, word-loving kid from Michigan that you are emerges from all these other parts of your file and that has to count and when I... When I talk to the faculty at Dartmouth, and this was true at Tufts as well, and say, what do you really value in the students you teach? They almost always say curiosity first.

And, someone at Dartmouth said to me, "I have a lot... You know, if curiosity is not present in my classroom, it's a much less fun place to be."

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
So, where do you find that? Does your GPA tell me curiosity? Does your SAT score say creative? No. It's reading me essays and your recommendations and your interview and listening to the file and saying, "I see this person and I can imagine him, since we're talking about you, in a classroom on the campus where I work, mixing it up with peers and saying to a professor, so let's go back to the metaphor you just used. You said blah, blah, blah, and would it be true if we said blah blah blah." And... Because that's what you've been doing with me. And, these are examples of the way you would behave in a classroom and does that feel valuable to the way a college admission officer meets you as an applicant beyond the data that kind of certified, yep, he's qualified and he's done well and his teachers liked him. But that's true for a lot of people.

Heath Monsma:
Right. Right. Right. Well, so, just a point of clarification, though. As dean of admission, how many applications are you reading? And, have you read every person that gets in, then? As part of your...

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. I have.

Heath Monsma:
Yep. Wow.

Lee Coffin:
I read your file.

Heath Monsma:
That's a lot of reading.

Lee Coffin:
So, yeah, I... So, the way... The system I've used... So, there's... There's two roles during this work. So, there's the role of admission officer, where... And, I step into that role every year and I say, "Okay. My job is not to be dean, but to read the file and to be one of 20 people on the admission committee working my way through a docket." So, I've read... As a reader, I read 800 this year, which is a lot more than I normally do as dean. But it was a big... It was a big year.

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
And then, when I shift to the dean part of the job, I am the final reader on all of the files that have been recommended as admits by the admission committee.

Heath Monsma:
Wow.

Lee Coffin:
You know, during April, as the enrollments come, I mean, I get up every morning and the first thing I do is open my MacBook and sit on the sofa and run my query to see who enrolled yesterday and kind of click through, one by one, to see who joined the class since the last time I looked. And, that's fun to see each of you make a decision that says this is where I see myself. Magically, some people enroll right way. I mean, we've released at 7:00 and by 7:05, we had the first person join the class. So, that's also kind of like magic to me.

Heath Monsma:
Yeah. That's super exciting. I know for mine, I took about 20 minutes to make sure I checked all the right boxes, even though all I had to do, I think, was type my name and press submit. But I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything, so...

Lee Coffin:
Yeah. Describe that moment for us.

Heath Monsma:
Sure. Okay. Well, I was sitting in this exact chair, which audio listeners can't see. But my mother insisted on being right over my left shoulder. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was wearing this same sweatshirt. And, I pressed the link and before I even got to read a word, I heard a screech, a piercing screech in my left ear, and I just saw the word congratulations and stood up and hugged my mom and it was a lot of emotion. I was... Honestly, I was more shell shocked than emotional at the time. My mom was way more emotional than I was because I had to run out the door and be at hockey practice in five minutes.

But, yeah. I looked... I checked it right at... I think 4:00 was the early decision deadline and I was there at 4:01.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
And, my hearing took about 48 hours to recover.

Lee Coffin:
From your mother's shrieking in your ears. Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
Yes.

Lee Coffin:
No, but those are fun moments and that's the part of the work that... It's invisible. That's why I asked for you to share, because I know there's an emotional response. I don't see it. You know, those little vignettes around the world. Sometimes people take a picture. One of your classmates in... I think it was in Rwanda, took... Someone filmed him opening, that same moment you just described, and filmed him opening it and you see his face just light up. He didn't scream, but he went from nervous to just beaming.

Heath Monsma:
Right.

Lee Coffin:
And, then he forwarded that to us. He said, "This is what you just did." That was exciting.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
Yeah.

Heath Monsma:
What are you specifically anticipating from the class of 2025? What do you think that we can bring to Dartmouth?

Lee Coffin:
So, I think your class as the first post-pandemic class... You know, I think the world we're all about to re-emerge into has shifted in some way.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
I don't think we know yet how. So, I think you are the pioneers of this post-pandemic college experience, certainly. So, that's intriguing to me. How do you all come back out of hibernation?

Heath Monsma:
Re-engage with society.

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, exactly. You know, you've all been isolated for a really long time and Zoom is great. It's gotten us through it. But I think... So, that's part of it, is just this big social experiment of reunion with humans.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
It's going to be a really important thing. And, I was struck as a reader by how often your peers around the world were looking out of your bedroom windows during quarantine and dreaming about how you might use your intellect to advance the conversation in whatever sphere you hoped to do that. And, that is inspiring, to see people thinking about global health, social justice, climate change, sustainability, democracy, globalism. I mean, all these things kept coming up over and over and over and over again. And so, there's this idealism there that I've seen in the past, but it felt more acute.

Heath Monsma:
Sure.

Lee Coffin:
With your cohort. And, that's what I'm looking forward to. I'm... And, I would say... I miss people.

Heath Monsma:
Me too.

Lee Coffin:
You know? I draw energy from people. I miss my mother. When you have yours looking over your shoulder... I haven't seen mine in a year and a half. And so, like, I... You know, so all of these emotions are kind of bubbling around all of us as we get vaccinated and we can rejoin a community beyond an electronic one. And so, I'm looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to seeing people on my campus again.

Heath Monsma:
Mm-hmm

Lee Coffin:
You know? The beautiful place is still there.

Heath Monsma:
Yeah.

Lee Coffin:
But it feels empty.

Heath Monsma:
Right. Right. I'm excited to be one of those people.

Lee Coffin:
I'm excited to have you there. Well, Heath, this has been such a wonderful conversation and I... I kind of thought it would be as I was imagining what this would be like, but you exceeded my expectations of what this interview might be like. So, thanks for... Thanks for joining me on The Search. Thanks for representing your peers in bringing me forward as a guy, not just a green signature on your letter. And, when we're both in Hanover, look forward to saying hello and shaking your hand.

Heath Monsma:
I look forward to that as well. Thank you for having me.

Lee Coffin:
Thank you.

So, that conversation with Heath underscores why I've been an admissions officer for all these years. Without sounding patronizing, I couldn't have been more proud of this 18-year-old kid in Michigan who had the presence to interview me, this Ivy dean who signed a letter to him. And, anyway, there we were. And, I hope as you listened that Heath gave you some insights like he gives his classmates at Pioneer High, where he said I'd like to make my teachers three-dimensional people, and I think he did that with me, so I'm really touched by the conversation we just had and I said to him before we started, I said, "You know, the best interviews are ones where you stop thinking question answer and you just have a conversation." And, I feel like Heath did that. So, that was really a great way to near the end of this series.

And, our next episode is the season finale as well as the series finale. And, in it, I've asked my friend and colleague Charlotte Albright to come out from behind the Zoom square where she's been my producer for every single minute of our series. She's a journalist herself and she and I are going to have a conversation to conclude the series about what we both learned over the course of these two wonderful seasons, and I'm looking forward to having Charlotte resurrect her public radio, TV, journalistic skill set and bring us to a conclusion. So, until then, I'm Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College. Thanks for joining us.