November 5, 2001

Tour Guides Escort Prospective Students

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Nichole Westerweel ’03 experiences Cornell in reverse.

As one of 60 tour guides in the University’s Campus Information and Visitor Relations unit, Westerweel’s job is to escort prospective students and visitors around the historic campus, often walking backward in order to lead and accommodate questions. Despite one embarrassing incident last summer where she backed into a Port-O-Potty, Westerweel said the skill came naturally.

“I never really practiced,” she said. “Now I find myself walking backward every time I’m in a large group.”

A veteran of 21 campus tours during her own college search, the Las Vegas native joined the staff last May and spent the entire summer in Ithaca presenting the campus.

“It sounds cheesy, but it’s so hard to grasp what it’s like to be in college when you’re visiting,” Westerweel said. “I remember when I visited I was so nervous. You have to get to know the school somehow and you can’t trust a brochure.”

Westerweel’s tour last Monday afternoon was her first in a month, but any fears that she had of rust were immediately squelched. She enthusiastically roared across the Arts Quad, effortlessly reeling off tales of pumpkins and Dragon Day. The one hour and fifteen minute jaunt combined information about academics, housing and dining with a smattering of historical fun facts.

“We want to present Cornell in the most honest and positive context,” said Molly Darnieder ’98 director of campus information and visitor relations. “It is fantastic that a student can see the campus through the eyes of someone who is currently here and talk with them openly about what Cornell is like.”

According to Darnieder, a former undergraduate guide, the current format of the Cornell campus tour has existed for nearly 30 years. The tour traditionally begins with a brief history of the University, followed by descriptions of all seven undergraduate colleges as the group circles the Central Campus. In catering to over 30,000 visitors annually, guides choose quirky trivia and campus myths to incorporate from an immense volume of school facts.

Guides also have to answer the tough questions posed by parents and prospective students. Westerweel said she is used to fielding questions about Ithaca winters, admissions, SATs and cars, but other more sensitive topics do come up.

“The questions people ask about the pressure of the school and suicide must be taken seriously,” Darnieder said. “These issues are a reality on our campus and on campuses across the country. We want to present a balanced viewpoint without dishonesty.”

Rather than providing guides with standardized answers to difficult questions, the students are trained to recognize sensitive areas and respond using appropriate judgment.

Although the tour is the most visible function of Cornell’s guides, the students are also required to work at the Information and Referral Center at Day Hall, answer phones at the University’s call center and man the information booths scattered across campus parking lots.

Despite the wide range of tasks involved, guide positions are among the most highly coveted undergraduate jobs on campus. Of the 84 applicants this semester, only 16 students were accepted. Darnieder believes that the arduous four-stage interview process is designed to select the students best suited to represent Cornell to campus visitors.

As part of their training this summer, the staff visited Niagara University and the University of Toronto to experience the campus tour from the side of the visitor. Darnieder believes these experiences were vital in illustrating the types of behaviors that are favorable and unfavorable in presenting a campus.

“The process is long and time intensive,” Darnieder said. “We look for students who are in love with Cornell and who want to be the face of the University on a daily basis.”

Ilyse Gerson ’02, who was hired last May as a tour guide, says, “My goal is to give the most accurate depiction of the school [that] I can. Students should be able to make an informed decision, even if it means Cornell is not for them.”

After taking Westerweel’s tour, however, Kristin Marasovich was sold. A high school senior visiting from California, Marasovich said the tour confirmed her decision to apply.

“Actually, I just decided to apply early decision,” she said. “My mom doesn’t even know yet.”

Archived article by Jason Leff