Tour groups — we’ve all seen them: clusters of high school students and parents roaming across campus, listening intently to a person at the front who’s walking backwards and smoothly rattling off stories and facts about every aspect of life at Cornell. But there is a lot more to being a tour guide than meets the eye. Here are a few things you might not have known:
- If the University is open, tours are running.
“Unless Cornell itself is closed, we’re giving tours,” Natalie LeMoss ’19, who’s been a tour guide since 2016, said. “Even if it’s pouring rain, or windy, or snowy, we’re still out there.”
The silver lining is that when faced with bad weather, the tour guides can take their groups inside more buildings, instead of just walking around and looking from the outside, LeMoss said. Around 2,700 to 3,000 people take tours over the week during the summer.
- The president may spontaneously drop in on a tour.
Just as they must give tours in all kinds of unpredictable Ithaca weather, tour guides may also be surprised by some very special guests. According to Olivia Simoni ’21, during one of the first tours she ever led, her group was joined by none other than University President Martha Pollack herself.
“She just walked out of Day Hall and saw a tour, and just hopped on,” Simoni recounted.
“At first I was like, ‘If I don’t get it right, they won’t know,’” she said, referring to the information about the University she must relay to the visitors, but having the President hanging on to every word certainly upped the stakes. An experience like that made every tour thereafter feel like a breeze.
- They do a lot more than just give tours.
Though they are best known for leading walking groups around campus, Cornell tour guides also staff the Cornell call center, the front desk at the Martin Y. Tang Welcome Center and the parking booths on campus.
Having such a wide variety of responsibilities means that “you never know what’s going to happen, especially [when working at] the call center,” according to Caroline Taylor ’21.
One of the strangest calls Taylor had ever received came from someone who wanted to buy a dead owl he saw on campus. Other tour guides also had similar stories, including phone calls from a person who requested an acidity test for their juice and a group of friends trying to settle the argument of whether Cornell is really part of the Ivy League.
- It’s an outline, not a script.
Unlike tour guides at other schools who may be required to memorize and recite a script verbatim, Cornell tour guides have a lot of latitude with how they present their own tours.
“We’re trained to know all the material, but aside from hitting a few bullet points of information, we’re really allowed to say whatever we want,” said Elise Kronbichler ’21.
“Expressing personality is very big on tours,” added Josh Mooney ’20. “We get a lot of leeway to talk about our Cornell experience and what makes Cornell special to us, not necessarily what the administration wants Cornell to be special for.”
Additionally, according to Erin Grohe ’19, the outline of information is revised by the professional staff with input from tour guides three or four times a semester to reflect shifts in the campus zeitgeist. For example, LeMoss said that compared to when she was first hired in 2016, tour guides now provide more details on Engaged Cornell, the Entrepreneurship Hub in Kennedy Hall and Student Disability Services.
- Misinformation and embellishment will happen, but not with bad intentions.
One common criticism of college tours is that the tour guides’ narrations may sometimes be at odds with the realities of campus life. Quirky facts about the Squirrel-Watchers Club, the Squirrel-Watchers-Watching Club and Bill Nye’s ’77 frequent visits to campus (where he seemingly invites the current inhabitants of his old dorm room to dinner) are fun but not entirely accurate. This is because tour guides borrow bits and pieces from each other, including stories that have been passed down over the years, Taylor and Grohe said.
“To answer your question straightforwardly, there are things that we say that definitely were true but not anymore, but that’s why we adjust the wording we use,” added Simoni. “It’s definitely not coming from a place of ‘Let’s trick them.’”
Therefore, according to Samantha Lee ’21, it’s important to preface Cornell urban myths with the phrase “legend has it…”
- Fielding questions from visitors can be an interesting challenge.
Both students and parents will throw curveball questions at tour guides, ranging from campus party culture to extracurricular activities.
“Yesterday I literally got asked about Cornell’s marijuana policy on campus,” Mooney said. “And I was like, ‘Well, marijuana’s illegal, so…’”
“I was giving a tour to high school students the other day, and they asked if you had to be Greek to join Greek life,” said Sandhya Ganesan ’20. “Like, yeah, ‘We just have a lot of Greek people here, they make up 30 percent of the student body.’”
“We have a contract with Athens,” joked Nico Modesti ’22.
Modesti also has a sense of humor when it comes to assuring concerned parents about nightlife on campus.
“I like to refer to the college experience as a meal, and partying as part of a buffet,” he said. “If you choose to have it, you can have it, but there are a ton of other options, and it won’t impact your meal even if you choose not to have that one food.”
- Above all, they strive to be genuine.
“We are expected to be positive and maintain a good outlook, but we’re not here to sugarcoat things for people,” said Grohe.
“You can tell when someone’s saying something they believe, and you can tell when they’re saying something scripted,” Catherine Cullen ’22 added.
For LeMoss, it is very important for tour guides to be people who are “community service-minded” and who “truly care about Cornell.”
Tour guides also sometimes go one step further and stay in contact with high school students, motivated by their passion for helping others love Cornell as much as they do.
“Giving out our emails is not something we have to do, but we do it because we just enjoy helping people out. That’s just the kind of people we are,” Kronbichler said.