- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2007

Even the ivy on some of the walls at Georgetown University starts to wilt when the humidity of a Washington summer begins to set in. The bricks behind the ivy can get so hot that a casual stroll through campus can cause beads of sweat to form above one’s brow.

Some would say the heat is unbearable, but summertime means free time for rising high school seniors, and it gives them and their families the opportunity to crisscross the nation in search of the perfect college fit.

But with the heat comes an additional challenge. Student tour guides, like Amanda Tomney at Georgetown, realize this and must sustain their beaming personalities and school pride to keep visitors from wandering off from the tour in search of shelter and air conditioning.

“We’re the first face most people see of Georgetown,” Miss Tomney says. “I love the university, and I want people to see that while I’m giving a tour.”

She walks backward throughout the tour to talk and interact with the group of about 30. Fortunately, her black shoes are flat, so walking backward is not too dangerous.

“If you see me about to run into a pole or a door, please let me know,” she begins.

As she walks, she tells the group the histories of the various buildings and includes some personal anecdotes along the way.

James Colman, an associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, says student tour guides are an indispensable part of the college admissions puzzle.

“What the tour guides do is provide the students and parents with an inside scoop of the school,” he says. “Having them can be helpful because they can reinforce what the admissions officers say during information sessions.”

Most importantly, tour guides allow for a more comfortable interaction between potential applicants and the school, Mr. Colman says.

“Often parents dominate conversations with admissions officers because they feel they are talking with another adult and their concerns are different than the student’s,” he says. “With the tour guides, they often feel more comfortable with their sons and daughters asking other types of questions.”

But before sending the tour guides out on their first tour, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions puts them through a rigorous interview and training process, which eventually leads to membership in the prestigious tour guide group Blue and Gray.

As part of Blue and Gray, Miss Tomney knows how to handle the tough questions and the most irate parents.

On one tour, a mother hit her son on the back of the head and told him to pay attention, Miss Tomney says.

“When people come to visit campus, I think that for the parents, speaking to an admissions officer is most important,” Mr. Colman says. “For the students, I’d say for more than half of them, it’s the tour guide that makes or breaks their impression of the school.”

At the University of Maryland, visitors are greeted by a giant, flowered “M” at the main entrance of campus.

“They actually spend one person’s tuition to maintain that thing,” says Wayne Kinard, a tour guide and senior at the university.

Here, the tour guides are also trained to walk backward, but when faced with heat, they choose to cut the tour short, talk while they walk and encourage visitors to visit the dairy to pick up some ice cream made fresh on campus.

They also know how to answer the most unexpected questions, even when a parent asks about the campus drinking policy, often to the student’s chagrin.

“I stressed out so much as a senior in high school that I had to get a masseur,” Mr. Kinard says. “I think it’s my job to convince them [the students] to come to Maryland and give a little bit of advice.”

Laura Foit, a tour guide and a junior studying public relations, agrees.

“Experiencing a school for yourself is the best way to do it,” Miss Foit says. “Relying on word of mouth about a school is not good.”

The personal interaction with the school that students have can tell potential students what the university is all about, she says, which is why she always makes sure to talk about the classes she attends and about Testudo, a bronze statue of a diamondback terrapin, the university’s mascot.

When Donna Ressel and her daughter Lauren decided to make the trip to College Park from Downingtown, Pa., they were looking for answers.

“We are trying to decide between a small school and a big one,” Mrs. Ressel says. “Sometimes the tour guides make the decision really easy because they’re so bad. Luckily, the ones here were wonderful.”

Mrs. Ressel also invited her sister, Caroline Wilson, and her niece Carol along for the trip. What the tour guides discuss on the tour is very important, Mrs. Wilson says.

“If they only point out buildings and don’t talk about things that we’re interested in, it’s boring,” Mrs. Wilson adds. “Sometimes they pick up on a bunch of stuff we like, other times they do not.”

When Judy and Tim Faust, of Mount Hope, N.Y., decided to take their son Tyler, 17, and daughter Chelsey, 14, for a three-day, four-college tour, they wanted to make the most of their time.

After visits to the College of William and Mary, James Madison University and the University of Virginia, the Fausts found themselves at George Mason University, in Fairfax, where the bright green leaves of the trees shade the brick-laden campus.

“All of the tour guides we’ve had have been very well-versed and positive about the schools,” Mrs. Faust says, “which has been nice when you’ve seen as many as we have.”

To make the visit to GMU more enjoyable, and less wet on rainy days, tour guide Dani Ertel makes sure to grab some oversized umbrellas for the school’s visitors.

Ms. Ertel, who has been working for the GMU Office of Admissions since she started there three years ago, encourages high school students to visit the schools they’re interested in attending.

“I only went on one tour at another school,” she says. “The tours reflect on the school, so it’s important to get a sense of what the school is like.”

Mr. Faust agrees.

“There’s no question that you judge a school by who’s talking,” Mr. Faust says. “Regardless if it’s an admissions office or a tour guide, they all have an influence.”

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