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Meet Colby Burnett

Colby Burnett
College Counselor
ITW David Speer Academy (IL)


How did you get your start as a counselor?
My primary skills are research, recall, and the application of information. Other than trivia, I always believed that education was my true calling. I began my education career as a math tutor, and then a world history teacher. I had numerous disagreements with my department chair regarding curriculum and my interactions with my students. My previous school eliminated the AP World History program, and my position along with it. However, my role as a tutor impressed one of my former colleagues. Since our time working together, Tom Mulder was named principal of the newly established campus of the Noble Street Charter School, Speer Academy. My skills fit college counseling well, as Speer wants its students to have clearly established goals based on their skill set even before beginning the formal application process. Finding best-fit schools requires passion, research skills, and follow-through. During my transition between schools, Speer was graduating its first class of seniors in the upcoming fall. Given access to our tremendous set of resources from years of counseling at the other campuses, I was able to establish a curriculum and be as honest and forthright with my students in terms of helping them achieve their goals.

You are a team leader on Jeopardy! All-Star Games and are still the only Jeopardy! contestant to win both the “Teachers Tournament” and the “Tournament of Champions.” What has that experience been like?
I was the third Jeopardy! Teachers’ Champion, and the first to win a match in the Tournament of Champions. I initially only wanted to represent my school well and not embarrass myself. When I auditioned for the show, I did not think of the financial gain until I was prompted to. I planned to purchase my mother a home with the winnings, and followed through accordingly.

I also achieved the proper amount of fame that I wanted in life - I get recognized from time to time, but can still walk in and out of a grocery store or public transportation without much fuss. I get recognized a few times at NACAC’s yearly convention, which truly aids in the ice-breaking process. I also can hope that some fan of the series will sit on that admission committee, see my recommendations for my students, and realize that the Colby Burnett who vouched for that student is indeed “the college counselor from Chicago who won on Jeopardy.” Being on Jeopardy also introduced me to an international trivia community that regularly interacts at competitions and conventions throughout the year. 

I was surprised upon being chosen to captain a team. It would have been much easier being picked to be a part of a more-established champion’s team, but I relished the challenge of guiding a team to victory. My team felt much like the early 2000s Detroit Pistons - no superstars, just competent role players. I felt an instant sense of camaraderie with fellow Teachers’ champions Jennifer Giles and John Pearson, and felt that I would continue to represent myself, my educational background, and my profession well.

What is your favorite part of the job?
As a college counselor, we prepare the next generation to transition between childhood and adulthood. College is a time to find oneself, and I feel great enthusiasm in being entirely honest and forthright with young adults about their goals, ideals, and ultimate happiness in a career. Navigating the process requires research in what one wants to accomplish, and the ability to discern how a specific institution will aid in accomplishing that goal.

How has NACAC played a role in your career?
NACAC has introduced me to an entire community and industry devoted to helping young people find their way through life. I get to hone my craft with the best professionals in the business, and have direct contact with the admission counselors that will ultimately judge my students. When I went through this process, I thought it was solely an individual effort; I now realize the impact that building close relationships between schools is. My own counselors from my childhood, Laura Docherty and Richard Borsch, guided me through this process. They are absolute titans in terms of building these relationships. I get to be at the forefront of changing trends in the admission and retention process, and feel much more confident in doing so. I have learned so much about the process from both sides of the desk.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our profession today?
We have to prepare students to see college as a way to further their goals, not only as job training or an extension of high school. Social and financial pressures have pigeonholed the post-secondary planning process for many of our young people. Making sure that students buy into achieving their goals and becoming a productive member of society, and ultimately achieving happiness is the goal of counselors. Counselors also need to make alternative post-secondary options just as viable in terms of societal prestige.

If you could be any fictional character, who would you be and why?
Superhero Kitty Pryde. I wouldn’t necessarily be her, but I would hope to embody all of her qualities. She cherishes her relationships, maintains complete honesty, and is daring in all tasks facing her.

Describe yourself in five words.
Blunt, honest, intelligent, sarcastic, and witty.

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