I toured Wesleyan on a crisp October morning in my junior year of high school. My tour was filled with other high schoolers excited about going to college, all of us clinging to our parents’ sides and taking in the University’s grandiose architecture. Once we had walked a full circle around campus, I knew I wanted to go to Wesleyan.
Now, three years and a pandemic later, college tours look different. COVID-19 makes it unsafe for prospective students to travel to campus, and like many other schools, Wesleyan has transitioned its campus tours to the infamous online platform: Zoom. As a guide, I often get asked about what it’s like to give virtual tours and how we share our University experience from afar. I caught up with some other guides to delve into what this experience has been like, and to find out about the positive outcomes virtual tours have had.
“Hopefully it’s close enough, or 95% the same as it would be if it was in person,” Tour Guide Tommy Whelan ’21 said. “I’m still just trying to give them the best facts that will help them make their decision about whether Wesleyan is the right school for them.”
Guides show pictures of each building at which they would stop on an in-person tour, illustrating what campus life is like inside. To ensure that all goes well in the Zoom world, guides work in pairs.
“Normally co-leading isn’t the most common thing, but it’s really cool when you get to hear how other guides give their tours and learn little bits and pieces from other people,” Tour Guide Tessa Zitter ’21 said. “I find it really nice to have someone who has a really different focus and can really speak a lot more in depth and personally about athletics or something like that that I’m not so involved in.”
Double the guides means double the insight, stories, and knowledge about the University. It also means that while one guide is explaining a stop, another can be answering questions in the chat box, or sending links to courses on WesMaps or information about specific majors students are interested in.
Assistant Director of Admission Events Jordan Nyberg is in charge of the University’s tour guiding program. She reported record numbers of prospective students attending tours this past fall.
“January of 2021, we had 319 virtual visitors between tours and info sessions. In January of 2020 we had 80, so it was almost a 300% increase just in January,” Nyberg said. “Our November Open House had more than double the visitors than we got last year.”
In addition to tours and admissions events, Wesleyan offers virtual senior interviews, information sessions, and WesChats, which are informational, non-evaluative opportunities for prospective students to learn from senior interviewers about campus life.
“The number of students we’ve been able to reach and have conversations with in different capacities, both WesChats and interviews, has been off the charts,” Associate Dean of Admission Chris Lanser, who runs the senior interviewing program, said.
“One thing I’ve noticed is more consistency,” Tour Guide Coordinator Livia Cox ’22 said. “In typical years, sometimes tours would have like 60 people and other times tours would have nobody, but now there seems to be maybe less 60 person tours but more consistently 20 person tours, so it adds up to be more [people].”
Sam Brumer ’22, who works alongside Cox as a Tour Guide Coordinator, says this ability to serve more prospective students comes from offering a wider range of tour times. Tours are now offered every weekday at noon, 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., and weekends at 9 a.m. and noon. In the past, tours were only offered weekdays at 9 a.m, 12 p.m. and 3 p.m., and weekends at 9 a.m and 12 p.m.
“I’ve been seeing people from all over coming into my tours, maybe more so than would typically be in one [in-person],” Whelan said. “Maybe they would’ve applied and just figured out if they wanted to go without visiting, so I definitely think the Zoom option is good for that.”
In a typical semester, 9 p.m. tours wouldn’t be offered, but now they provide an opportunity for students from different time zones to learn about the University and talk with students. Spots at 9 p.m. are also available for interviews, and information sessions have a 7 p.m. option.
“I think that’s been so incredible, to not only make [Wesleyan] more accessible to students who are on an international scope, but also students on the West Coast [and] students who might not be able to travel to Wesleyan,” Tour Guide Emily Frazer-Abel ’21, who is from Colorado, said. “I know it was definitely a privilege for me to be able to do my East Coast college tours, [and] I hope some of [virtual touring] at least stays even after we return in person for those students who aren’t able to travel to campus.”
Lanser and Nyberg predict that the virtual format will continue in the future, even when in-person events resume.
“We said this is an opportunity to reach students who we normally wouldn’t reach to provide them with access that they normally wouldn’t have, and we began to rethink all of our programs in that context,” Dean Lanser said.
Zitter noted that the format of Zoom is not only more accessible financially and time-zone-wise; it can also make students feel more comfortable.
“There are a lot more ways in which you can engage in the tour,” Zitter said. “[Students] can engage with their camera on or off, they can ask questions in the chat, [and] I think that that sometimes puts [students] more at ease.”
Nyberg pointed out that in the November Open House, students could choose which online events to attend and could engage in whatever level they saw fit.
“Instead of running from eight until four or five, we ran all day long; we did events from eight to eight and we had a tour start at nine,” Nyberg said.
This wide time-window gave students more time to explore Wesleyan and take breaks if they needed to, all without actually leaving home.
The virtual setting puts the onus on guides to paint the picture of what Wesleyan is like, giving guides an opportunity to spice up their tours.
“In our normal tours, we don’t get to show pictures of me rowing on crew or pictures of me swing dancing, or study abroad or anything that,” Frazer-Abel said. “I think it’s so fun for prospective students to see those pictures of things that actually go on on campus, and all the crazy cool things that happen at Wesleyan.”
For Brumer, the customization of tours is a silver lining which allows prospective students a unique look into campus life.
“My goal from an events and a tour standpoint is to make it as genuine as possible, and to make people feel like they actually visited,” Nyberg said. “If someone takes a tour and they love it…and they end up matriculating and they set foot on campus, I don’t want it to be a foreign experience for them.”
Halle Newman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.