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Joel Dobben: Emory graduate 'gives back' as an admissions counselor

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | April 18, 2016

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As an Emory student, Joel Dobben earned highest honors in English, competed on the swim team and won a Bobby Jones Scholarship. As an admissions counselor, he now shares the benefits of an Emory education with prospective students. Emory Photo/Video

When Joel Dobben meets with prospective students to describe the depth and breadth of a liberal arts education at Emory, he speaks from experience.

Nearly four years ago, Dobben stood on the Emory Quadrangle in the mist of an early morning rain, preparing to graduate summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in English.

In addition to competing on Emory's award-winning men's swimming team and producing a senior thesis that tackled the complexities of desire in Victorian literary characters, Dobben was also one of four seniors selected that year to receive the Robert T. Jones Jr. Scholarship.

As a Bobby Jones Scholar, Dobben was funded for a year of study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he earned a master's degree in Shakespeare and Renaissance literary culture, with a distinction in the dissertation element.

All told, he says, a remarkable education filled with incredible opportunities.

Today, Dobben has taken his enthusiasm for all that Emory has given him full circle, sharing the rewards of his experience at the University in a new role — as an admissions counselor in the Office of Undergraduate Admission.

Coming full circle

For Dobben, it's a perfect fit.

"Part of my Emory experience was serving as a tour guide here, and in my senior year I was an admission fellow," he says. "Having worked in the Office of Admission, I was already acquainted with a lot of people here and the amazing work they did."

One of his key responsibilities now involves managing Emory's student ambassadors — about 270 current students who serve as volunteer tour guides and hosts for thousands of prospective students, a job he remembers well.

It's a critical role, Dobben says — a chance for prospective students to learn about Emory through a peer lens into life on the campus and in the classroom. During one week in late March alone, students guided tours for some 3,000 visitors.

"Emory is attracting more and more visitors," he says. "The season never ends; people are constantly learning about Emory and coming to campus to engage."

Hearing from current students adds an important element to campus tours, Dobben says.

"Our ambassadors are able to talk about their personal experiences, telling their own stories and conveying information about student life here, from their favorite classes and opportunities for research to extra-curricular activities — it totally runs the gamut," he says.

"For visitors, it offers an authentic experience," Dobben adds. "Everyone in the office is committed to that goal, but to get that personal voice and perspective, you need to engage with current undergraduates so new students can project themselves into that role."

Sharing the Emory experience

With current students on the front lines of helping future students form on-campus impressions, tour guide training is taken seriously, Dobben says. Ambassador selection is a rigorous process.

This year, about a dozen Emory students served as trainers for the campus tour guides, who spend two hours every Sunday in February training for the job. "The second half of March through April is our craziest time," Dobben says. "Overall, we're hosting lot of humans."

In addition, Dobben works in the field, traveling six to eight weeks out of the year talking to students in San Diego and northern California, where students are showing a growing interest in Emory. He also provides an initial read on about 1,000 student applications from the region.

"I try to build relationships there, meeting with high school counselors, giving presentations about Emory, talking about the academic culture here, our values and the admission process," he says.

It all takes him back to his own time at Emory. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Dobben was homeschooled through the 8th grade. "My mom was a CPA who thought she could do a better job," he explains.

He arrived at Emory in 2008 "impressed by the breadth of opportunity in the sciences and students engaged in the humanities," Dobben says. "It really felt like a liberal arts community, even though it was also a nationally ranked research university."

"And it was a friendly campus," he recalls. "I could tell people enjoyed being here."

As an English major, "the faculty here were both very approachable and fostered in me a real passion for literature and the values of the liberal arts education," he adds.

"I still feel the physical classroom is this magical place where people from all different backgrounds and perspectives can talk, which is so wonderful. A big part of the work of the admission office starts with our faculty."

At home at Emory

Those who worked with Dobben as a student at Emory are happy to see him bring his talents back to campus.

"Joel is very bright and hard-working, as one would expect of a scholar-athlete," says English professor Sheila Cavanagh, who came to know him through her work directing the summer British Studies Program in Oxford, United Kingdom.

"The Bobby Jones awards only go to students who successfully engage with the community at Emory, as well as succeed academically.  Joel was a wonderful choice and it is a delight to have him back on campus," she says.

Emory head swim coach Jon Howell worked with Dobben during his time as a distance swimmer. "He was just a workhorse," Howell recalls. "Not the most talented guy in the pool, but someone who was deeply respected by our team."

"What Joel achieved he earned through a lot of hard work and determination," Howell says. "I imagine that's something he carries into admissions and every aspect of his life. It's fundamentally a part of who he is."

His sister, Anna Dobben 13C, also came to Emory as a transfer student, where she was an NCAA Division III champion and All-American, named UAA Women's Swimmer of the Year.

For Dobben, promoting the benefits of an Emory education feels like important work, with the power to help enrich lives and eventually the wider community.

"I feel as if I am really living a life of service," he says. "The people here, be it friends or faculty, have done so much for me. This is a way of giving back, and that feels really satisfying."