No Longer a Pre-Frosh, Relearning to Be a Tourist
After April’s whirlwind of prospective students and WesFestivities, most students are relieved by the eventual return to normalcy, but many still hear the echoes of “come to Wes” reverberating through campus.
Luckily, there is an outlet for these tortured souls: the student tour guide program, where students have the opportunity to present Wesleyan to prospective students and their parents three times a day. The tours use a rigid framework: the two tour-leaders usher their group to specific destinations on campus and use them as jumping-off points to talk about aspects of the school. Student Tour Guide Coordinator Kayla Stoler ’14 explained this format in more detail.
“In training, tour guides are given a brief list of talking points to mention,” she said. “The list includes nine stops: the CFA, college row, Judd, Olin, SciLi, Freeman, Fauver, Foss Hill, and Usdan. At each stop, the guide will cover a few basic pieces of information—for example, at Freeman they’ll discuss student involvement in athletics and will point out the different facilities.”
The format of the student-led campus tour is not unique to Wesleyan, but students and administrators have added small touches that make a noticeable difference. For one, tours are given three times a day, not twice, which is how other schools like Yale University and Amherst College operate.
In addition, there is something affirming about a school whose students are clamoring to talk it up to outsiders.
“Hiring is never easy,” Stoler said. “Wesleyan already attracts enthusiastic, unique students, so we always find it difficult to narrow the applicants down.”
It was my own enthusiasm that led me to try and conduct a campus tour of my own for a prospective student and friend, high school junior Charlie Bardey. I took our group down to High Street and began to work my magic.
“Um…that’s Fisk…that’s where I have my language class…there are a lot of language classes there…and that one’s Psi U,” I said. “It’s a frat.”
After my pitiful attempt at a tour, I wondered if the aspects of Wesleyan I found special were more internal than external. Every college has classrooms, arts buildings, and dining halls, but what I later recounted to Bardey was the great sense of community I found here and the incredible drive within each student.
Later, he took an official campus tour and marveled at the differences between the tour and the time he spent talking to students.
“The tour was interesting—you end up seeing a bunch of things not actually part of the tour that give you actually part of the tour that give you a better sense of things, like people screaming ‘come to Wes!’” Bardey said. “However, staying with friends is exponentially more helpful, because it’s more what you see going on with students that gives you a real insight.”
This story made me question how effective a tour could be at giving prospective students a true sense of this institution. Most of the snippets I’ve caught from passing tours seemed static compared to the vibrancy of campus—the history of the buildings, the “incremental independence” of our housing system, and how Wilbur Olin Atwater quantified the calorie in the basement of Judd Hall. I wondered if the very format of a “campus tour” wrongfully centered the discussion around the nine discrete locations instead of explicitly speaking to the academics, the student body, and the community as a whole.
However, Stoler made it clear that she and the other coordinators urge tour guides to use their own experiences to bring color and personality to these nine points.
“We encourage the guides to provide personal anecdotes,” she said. “Oftentimes, the tour guide is a prospective student’s only interaction with a college. We’d prefer for them to get to know the guide, rather than just listening to facts that they can read online.”
Wesleyan does a quite a few things to make sure that guide’s personality shines through during their tours. Instead of the usual hour-long format, tours last 75 to 85 minutes, with extra time allotted to help foster a connection between the tour guides and their group. This maneuver demonstrates the trust and freedom that the University gives to students in how they present the school to prospective students.
Another anomaly is that guides walk forward in lieu of the traditional style of walking backwards that is common at many other schools. Stoler said this small alteration has a grand effect on the way in which the tour guides connect to their groups.
“Rather than talking to the entire tour group as we walk, we address the group when we arrive at different tour stops,” Stoler said. “In between the stops, we talk to prospective students and families one-on-one, which gives visitors the opportunity to have a conversation with their tour guide.”
These attitudes and provisions were reassuring, but my curiosity was piqued: are the Wesleyan campus tours truly unique and personalized in practice, or do they join the long list of uninspired, follow-this-script campus tours that I had experienced in my college search?
I planned to see for myself, and arrived early for the 12 p.m. Wednesday tour. I took that time to discuss some of my questions with tour guide Arya Alizadeh ’13. I hinted to him that maybe there was something inherently flawed within the framework of a campus tour and how it seemed to invoke rote descriptions of sites and buildings. Alizadeh was firm in his response.
“Tour isn’t an effective label,” Alizadeh said. “It’s a conversation about Wesleyan. When you’re talking [to a tour] about the CFA, you’re also talking about music at Eclectic, or Prometheus’ fire show.”
As I introduced myself to my tour guides, Aubrey Hamilton ’12 and Ibraheem Khadar ’15, I made a note to keep Alizadeh’s words in mind throughout the tour.
This particular group was composed of only one prospective student and his mother, but the two guides seemed intent on providing them with a great experience just the same. On the way to the first stop—the CFA—the appeal of tour guides who walk forward instead of backward was clearly apparent. Thinking back to other student tours, I realized I associated the backward walk with the campy, false cheeriness that other institutions seemed to demand of their guides.
Our two guides, on the other hand, were realistic, personable, and poised to answer any questions.
Addressing us in front of the CFA, our guides provided us with facts—the size of the rehearsal rooms and theater seating capacities (numbers I could not imagine any prospective student registering). I realized the importance of such seemingly trivial figures later in the tour; when I stood in front of the enormous pool in the Freeman Athletic Center for the first time, I was awestruck and unreasonably proud.
At times, however, I questioned why certain locations were on the tour at all. Their talk about the deans and administrators residing in North College didn’t seem particularly engaging for a prospective student. However, Khadar deftly used this explanation as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the close relationships many students here have with their class deans. The prospective student was intrigued.
“Does your freshman dean know you?” he asked.
We continued on our way past Judd and walked through Olin. The two guides took this opportunity to opine on the different study spaces on campus, but there seemed to be precious little that a quick stroll through Olin could offer besides a visual and physical sense of the place. It reminded me of how, during my own college-selection process, people often invoked the “feel” of a school’s library as a hugely important criterion.
“I was completely guilty of doing that,” said Roxanna Pell ’15. “I liked certain schools that wouldn’t have suited me socially or academically because of the way they looked. But I think there is validity in that, because physical setting is important—certain places can be depressing.”
The tour had placed me in the mindset of an outsider, and I was able to look freshly upon the motion and energy of students buzzing around Exley and Pi. I understood how only a tour could foster these visceral moments, where you feel as if you can effectively peer in at this community.
The prospective student and his mother seemed invigorated by this scene. The student was equally floored by Weshop and the proximity of senior housing to the main campus. Hamilton spoke to this issue directly:
“It’s very different being a senior who lives so close to campus when you compare it to students at other schools that have a 10-minute commute to campus,” she said.
Thinking about Wesleyan from the perspective of a visiting student on a tour, I could see the subtle ways in which Wesleyan’s unique atmosphere informed its institutions—an on-campus grocery store, the tight-knit senior housing, and Pi’s familiar pastry-and-small-talk template of a coffee shop reinforce Wesleyan’s community ethos. Our commitment to social and environmental issues was etched on the very face of the campus.
Going on this tour helped me to realize how I take aspects of Wesleyan for granted, particularly the landscape. Tours aren’t important because they purport to show prospective students and families something they have never seen before; they’re important because they provide a succinct look at our campus and our campus life. And although these tours provide only a taste of what Wesleyan has to offer, the facilitators of the student tour guide program go above and beyond in trying to make that taste a diverse and satisfying one.