Shad Valley: In Need of an Admissions Overhaul?

I attended Shad Valley in the summer of 1990 at the UBC campus. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I met some extraordinary people who I struggle to stay in contact with to this day. I was then hired by the ‘Canadian Centre for Creative Technology’ (CCCT) which is now called ‘Shad International’ for the remainder of the summer, and for subsequent years as their ‘ShadNet’ administrator; a pre-internet BBS/e-mail system based on CNCP’s Dialcom.

I got a feel for the inner workings of the program, and got to know well the very committed –but small– team, running things behind the scenes of this nation-wide multi-campus program.

Whilst running statistics on program participants (part of my job that summer) I got a feel for the sort of people that get into the program. I was blown away to find out how close to the bottom I was, in terms of marks of successful applicants. At the time, I was a mid-80’s average student amongst 90 average students.

By that time, the program had already been running 9 years, plenty of time for many of the students to have established their careers and be identified as some of the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ or budding entrepreneurs: two of the target audiences of the program (I thought). I was a bit surprised to find that wasn’t really the case. Now, the sample size was small, with the earliest programs only numbering in the 10’s of participants so I suppose you could explain that away.

So what is the link? Well, I spent a lot of time then thinking about how marks relate to success. There is no question some of the people that attended the program with me are fantastically successful, but they were also academically brilliant. While there are brilliant successful people, you do not need to be brilliant to be an entrepreneur or change the world?

A recent Macleans article entitled ‘Do Grades Really Matter?’ by Sarah Scott triggered this debate again in my mind. One example cited regarded 210 Hunter College Elementary School graduates, who had IQ’s higher than 99% of the population: “By middle-age they had become happy, prosperous, community-minded citizens. But they hadn’t aspired to achieve great things.”

From what I recalled about the Shad selection process at the time, many other factors were considered aside from marks, but the easiest way to cull the massive list of candidates was through the easy numerical analysis that comes from an already established rating system care of the high school or CEGEP marks. If they were trying to identify those people that appeared to be the most ‘entrepreneurial’, this wasn’t the way to do it.

In fact, even if the Shad Valley staff had done the best possible job to identify those people, the pool of applicants was already tainted. The schools that promoted the program to their students typically only promoted it to those students that were academically gifted. Basically, these are people that are clearly smart enough to work inside the system, instead of (necessarily) having the traits associated with some of the most successful people: “Creative thinkers, the kind who transform ho we see things, have characteristics such as curiosity, appetite for risk, and an open mind.”

Perhaps it is adversity itself which drives some people to become extraordinary successes. If you are academically gifted to the point that the ‘system’ is always giving you scholarships, opportunities and direction in your career, the requirements for you to think outside the box are pretty limited.

So I went to the Shad Valley web-site to review both their mission statement and the application they use to evaluate potential students. I was very positively surprised to see their much leaner application had a bit less emphasis on marks than I remember, and more on other things such as personal accomplishments, career goals [I think that one is hokey myself, but more on that in another blog -ed.], essays, reference letters, and opportunities for creative inputs.

Cool! They clearly have evolved! But wait, what is with the mission statement?! (I have bolded some items):

Shad Valley is a diverse extended community of leaders dedicated to the development of remarkable youth, helping them to recognize, harness, and strengthen their talents.

At Shad Valley, we surround high-potential youth with excellence, and stimulate their creativity. We nurture their initiative, skills, values, and desire to solve important problems, while challenging them to meet the highest standards of ethical conduct, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability.

The Shad Valley programs build on an academic foundation of mathematics, science, engineering, and entrepreneurship to develop intellectual excellence in our students. These are the tools they will use to excel and to innovate, during the programs and in their futures.

Intellectual excellence? How about entrepreneurs, leaders of tomorrow? Do I remember things that wrong from 1990? That is very possible, I have a garbage memory, which is part of why I write everything down (including blogging). Part of the reason for this post is to stimulate some debate amongst the Shad Alumni, faculty and administration on this topic, and find out if I am all wet on this!

There are some hints about what I remember, the comment about ‘stimulate creativity’, ‘nuture desire’, ‘innovate’, but the leadership part gets lost for sure.

Don’t get me wrong, such a program is worthwhile. Programs like those described above need to exist, and probably more of them. But how about we challenge ourselves a bit more to find the Sam Waltons, Bill Gateses and (preferable) Steve Jobses of the world?

Would a program that tries to identify those that may have a positive lasting impact on our society and economy not be more lucrative for both applicants and the sponsors? If the program attempted to identify leaders and nurture that skill at an early age, would that not be more attractive to corporate and government sponsors, who are in dire need of such people?

How about evaluating some of the other attributes associated with success: emotional intelligence, drive, social awareness, ability to network, influencing skills, etc.? Would that lead to an even more successful program?

Anyway, ‘nuff-said. What do you think?

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