“A parent accused me of trying to kill her…Tufts admissions is its own little world.” Cole Van Glahn, a Tufts alum who worked in the Tufts admissions office, tells SocratesPost why he chose Tufts, what was special about Tufts admissions, the best and worst encounters with students, and what sorts of applicants stood out most. Bonus: He’s a theater director and board game designer by day.
Exclusive Insider Interview: Alumnus and Admissions Office Guide, Tufts University
SocratesPost: Cole, tell us about yourself and your background.
SocratesPost: That is so interesting. I love board games myself and I never even knew that it was a job. But of course, somebody has to do that. How in the world did you get into game design? You usually hear about video game design, but not board games.
Cole at Tufts: Great. Yeah, I started designing games, just for kicks and giggles when I was a little kid. And, you know, none of them were real. All of them were fun. And as I got older, I’ve always just been a huge sci fi fantasy nerd and that kind of lends itself towards board gaming in various ways. I used to play Magic: The Gathering competitively when I was younger.
Most of my background is in more sort of creative and narrative based work, but I was always fairly good with math, which is really important for board game design And I did a lot of quantitative sociology when I was in college, so that also sort of naturally provided some of the more statistical skills that you need. And actually, the game that I’m getting published right now came out of basically just going to a gaming convention as a whim vacation, talking to a company and they asked me if I had a game I wanted to pitch and I lied, and I said, yes. And then I made one up. And then I finished it.
SocratesPost: Did you make it up on the spot?
Cole at Tufts: It was something I’ve been thinking about for, I don’t know, maybe a couple of weeks in anticipation of the convention. But I didn’t have anything, I just kind of knew that I wanted to base it off the idea of aerial combat and island hopping. And so, when he asked if I had one, I just sort of said yes, and then tried to craft a story. And in game design, you’re talking about things like pillars of design, which is basically, what are the key things that a player needs to be able to do to be good at this game. They can be things like resource management, or block is a major pillar that’s used a lot – basically anything that is a core mechanic of how you play the game. And I just made up a couple of those and crafted the story to them and we thought it was interesting. And then I had two weeks to put together a thing. And I did. And now its two years later.
SocratesPost: Are you allowed to tell us what the game is called or where we can find it? Or not yet?
Cole at Tufts: Not a ton yet .. but it’s essentially a game about space control set in sort of a classic fantasy world, but with the technology level of just post World War One, aerial combat. It’s all about exploring an archipelago of islands and trying to make your way from the island where you start to a portal that will take you back to the home world that all of you were originally from, so players compete to try and get back home the fastest.
SocratesPost: Wow. So, it seems like you definitely need the understanding of, like you said, statistics, history, probability, and maybe psychology, too.
Cole at Tufts: Yeah. I think my truth about who I am as a person is I’m very much a jack of all trades, master of none, and have always sort of dabbled in a lot of different random things. And I think what I’ve found both in my primary career in theatre, as well as in game design, is the places where I have succeeded, or enjoyed myself, depending on what’s happening, have been places where knowing a little bit about a lot of things had an outsized impact, because I’m never going to be the person in the room, whose definitely the best at apps, I’m never going to be the best writer … I’m almost never the best at the thing that I’m doing, but I’m usually third best.
SocratesPost: All right. That’s a great place to be. You have just enough expertise but still enough breadth to dabble in everything that you’re interested in.
Cole at Tufts: Yeah, and I think in production management, which is how I pay my rent in theater, the thing that you do is to interface with directors, scenic designers, lighting designers, sound, costumes, stage management, as the representative of the institution that they’re working for. I’d have to be able to talk to folks, switch from talking to a director about something that’s very arcane, abstract and artistic, and switch over to talking to a lighting designer about how they want to do that with light, and then switch over to talking to the master electrician about how technically we are able to achieve that effect. And so, it’s three very, very different things that I have to be able to do for each sort of design field on any given show. Again, I am definitely not the best director in that room, or the best lighting designer or the best electrician, I know enough about what each of them does that I can help them talk to one another.
SocratesPost: When you think about your career, or even your hobbies, whether it’s being able to connect people from different positions within your field or being able to pitch on the spot, how do you feel like your Tufts experience contributed to that?
Cole at Tufts: Tufts theatre program, like a lot of BA’s, as opposed to a BFA or some sort of conservatory training, a lot of BA’s are pretty lit history based, especially at liberal arts. I mean, Tufts is technically a research university, but it’s a liberal arts setup. A lot of those programs are more based in literature and history and less based in practice. I think Tuft is an example of this – they’re usually a very robust student theater, where you’re all kind of scrapping and figuring things out and so that was the environment. My training is actually as a director, and a little bit of a lighting designer. But because liberal arts education is dedicated to the idea of a well-rounded individual, that comes out in theatrical training when I left that program as a director who knew how to speak as a director. I built most of the sets for the shows that I directed; I lit several shows and worked on the electrics crew and painted. I produced, I stage managed, you just ended up doing all of those kinds of things, whereas folks coming out of a BFA, if they were an actor and a BFA, they probably didn’t pick up a paintbrush. And if they were a director they probably didn’t design lights. That’s not universally true, of course, there are plenty of programs actually in Chicago — I have actors coming out of BFA who have excellent skills in the technical theatre arts — but if you go to a conservatory program, generally speaking, the point of that is to get pretty singular training. I think my time at Tufts, a lot of it was based around needing to be fairly good at whatever given opportunity would call for, or even learning how to do that thing. And that was kind of a ‘get in where you fit in’ strategy was effective, I think, especially in the Chicago theater scene, which is so ensemble based. It’s very different from a New York or San Francisco, or some of the other places that I’ve looked at work.
SocratesPost: Did you know that the Tufts curriculum was going to be like that? How did you decide on Tufts as your place to study?
Cole at Tufts: When I was graduating from high school, I was still caught between a couple of things. Theatre felt like one option, obviously not a good financial option, but something that I knew that I was good at and that I cared about. But I was still toying around with other things that I might have majored in. And frankly, none of them were going to make me any money, so you know, might as well just pick the one that I had the most fun with. But when I was coming down to it, I applied mostly to schools that were similar to Tufts. I only applied to nine colleges; I kept things pretty tight. And it actually came down to Tufts and Northwestern.
SocratesPost: When it got down to your two remaining college choices, how and why did you choose Tufts over Northwestern?
Cole at Tufts: Northwestern has a better theater program than Tufts in terms of a national reputation. I don’t say that to demean Tuft’s program at all, I loved my time there and I think it’s a successful one, but a very different beast, for sure. And actually, the thing that brought me to Tufts over Northwestern was for one, I wasn’t totally positive I wanted to go into theatre and Northwestern’s program is much more demanding in a way that I think can make flexibility difficult. And so, because I didn’t know for certain, I didn’t want to lock myself in like that. And the second thing was Tufts as a school, felt, at least to me, like an extremely welcoming place. And I think that was very important to me at a time when you start a new life and you want to go somewhere that you feel comfortable and you feel like you can grow on your own terms. And I think Tufts was a place that told me that it wanted me there and that I could grow there on my own terms, and that I could discover things about the field I was interested in myself as a practitioner of those fields in a very open way. I have a whole spiel from when I was a tour guide about why I chose Tufts.
SocratesPost: I’m curious. What did Tufts do to make you feel so invited?
Cole at Tufts: I actually really didn’t want to apply to Tufts. My mom made me the day of the application. And it’s so funny, but you know, I can trace back that whole journey. I first saw Tufts in the summer. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been but it’s on a big hill. Boston in the summer is muggy and gross. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, north of San Francisco, so I was used to very different environments. And there was nobody on campus and it was super-hot and gross. I was like “this sucks, this place is terrible.” And then, you know, my mom kept working on me – she was like, “I really think you’d enjoy the school.” I got in and then I went to an admitted students’ weekend. And the difference between — it’s an obvious thing in retrospect — a college with and without students is basically the difference between a college and a bunch of buildings. I went ahead to the students weekend and the thing that really stood out to me one was: The fellow whom I stayed with had a class where you get taught by a TA. It wasn’t an actual full class. He’s like, “you’re probably going to be super bored. It’s not that interesting.” I didn’t really know what to do and he had three friends in his room at the time. We were talking and they said “that’s super lame, come have dinner with us.”
And that was really striking to me and that was sort of my experience there that whole weekend, was that it was a group of people who without having any literal responsibility for me would choose to take that responsibility and choose to take that responsibility on behalf of the school. Right? And say, we want you to have a good time here. We want to talk to you and welcome you, because we care about you, we love this school enough that we want it to look good. They could have had any number of a million reasons, but all of them were positive. That was touching to me. And I think what I felt in that moment is, regardless of where I want to go, who I want to be, how I want to learn, I will be doing it in an environment and with people that I will want to be around. And I think that’s a maxim I felt in life – you can do a lot of things in life but if you are doing them with people you like, they’re probably going to be better.
…you can do a lot of things in life but if you are doing them with people you like, they’re probably going to be better
SocratesPost: It seems like the feeling of being welcome and having a passion for the school spread to you. Because when you started at Tufts, you pretty quickly started working for the admissions office. Right?
Cole at Tufts: Yeah. The way that Tufts operates is they hold auditions for tour guides at the beginning of each semester. Freshmen are allowed to start doing that second semester of that year. The first opportunity I had, I decided to go try and I had a few friends who did the tour guiding program and I think one of the important things at Tufts is that it’s not a paid position, so it’s all volunteer. They really want people doing it who really love the school.
I enjoyed the fact that I got to take a couple of hours a week to talk about the school. I’m a theater kid so I’m comfortable in front of crowds in that performance kind of way. I’m comfortable with answering questions and discussing with people what we’re about. But two, I do think I felt a sense of, I only chose this school because of the way that students interacted with me. And if I can be that person for other people, then that’s all good, right? I really loved it and so I worked summers for them and started taking on more responsibility and then started training tour guides and developing new tour routes and content for them. And then going out and interviewing students. When I was there, I did student interviews, and now I still do those. But I think I just really connected with the idea, like anything else in life, going to school is primarily a human experiment. More so I think than it is anything else. It’s about the people that you’re going to be working with. I mean, I would actively tell people on tours that they shouldn’t go to Tufts, which some of my supervisors weren’t super happy about, but they’d be asking me questions that made it very obvious that they wanted to go to Ohio State. I’m like, you go to Ohio State, you should just not go here.And that’s fine. Some people want a huge school and a big sports team. It becomes pretty obvious what people want out of their college experience. And sometimes it was just clear, if something that’s really important to you is a sense of community that is built by a larger institution, you should go. You won’t be happy here, you’ll transfer, and nobody wins if you do that. Those are always really interesting conversations.
SocratesPost: What were some extremely negative encounters you had with students?
Cole at Tufts: I don’t remember anybody that terrible. I once had a parent accuse me of trying to kill her. That was very interesting. There was a lightning storm that we got caught in. She said “it’s so dangerous to be up on a hill and lightning.” We went inside, but I don’t control the weather. Zeus is not on speed dial. I’m so sorry.
SocratesPost: How about your most positive memorable encounters with students?
SocratesPost: And not only that, it seems like even beyond that in their careers, you’ve helped each other out?
SocratesPost: What was the culture like in the admissions office when you were there?
SocratesPost: That’s a vivid way to put it.
SocratesPost: Through those observations, what types of applicants stood out to you most at Tufts and why?