In addition to walking groups of visitors through the key spots on campus and explaining the unique features of a Vassar education, succesful student tour guides are also performers, weaving their personal stories with their knowledge of the college and coloring a visitor’s first-impressions.
Each group of visistors is a new audience, ready to be taught, charmed, and welcomed to the campus.
Associate Director of Admissions and Tour Guide Supervisor Paola Gentry described how she and the tour guides see themselves, saying, “We don’t sell Vassar,” Instead, she later added, “We are story tellers.”
For almost three years, Danny Lempert ‘13 has served on the small, elite roster of tour guides. He leads three to five tours a week, depending on the time of the year and the ebb and flow of visitors. He said knows the tour’s path forwards and backwards—it is ingrained in his mind.
While tour guides for some college and universities are volunteer positions, tour guides at Vassar are paid work-study employees. This disctinction means that although the number of tour guides—17 this Spring—has to be kept low because of the costs, the Office of Admissions can be selective in choosing who it accepts.
Gentry, who has been at the Admissions Office for five years, looks for someone who is comfortable speaking in front other people, in crowds big and small, who has a positive attitude and who is active outside of the classroom with extracurriculars. This year she received eighty applications for only a handful of openings.
While she considers applicants from all interest-backgrounds, Gentry admits that the program attracts a certain type.
“A lot of students who come from theater based background, people who like to perform, a cappella, music they tend to want to be tour guides,” said Gentry.
Lempert is in Improv and the sketch comedy group Happily Ever Laughter (HEL). His fellow guide Siobhan Reddy-Best ’13 is Vice-President of the Philatheis Board. They both say this has helped them in their work.
While they have to cover certain subjects,, guides are not given any script and are encouraged to tell stories about themselves and speak in their own voice. The most important tool a guide has is the anecdote. A good anecdote snatches a visitor’s attention of a college and lodges itself in the memory.
“It doesn’t really matter if they’re not going to remember the numbers and they’re not going to remember the name of the buildings,” said Lempert. “It’s the read you get on the tour guide and how do you see him or her as someone you could go to school with.”
Some anecdotes come from the Office of Admissions, legends of the College’s history collected by generations of past admissions officers.
“These swing in and out of style,” explained Gentry.
No one anymore mentions the one about Jane Fonda and a motorcycle. The one visitors want to hear about, according to Gentry, is the story of the student who eloped with a stable boy or that the reason the hallways in Main are so wide was to allow female students to do exercises in their hoopskirts.
Along with these established anecdotes, tour guides have their own personal repertoire of stories from their own experiences. In a story that testifies to the accessibility of professors at Vassar, Reddy-Best, who has been a full-time tour guide since January of her sophomore year, shared how when she was once enrolled in a difficult class she met weekly with the professor for help and guidance.
She said, “It’s a good story because it’s about me not doing well in a class, but getting the help that I needed.”
Lempert likes to give his own spin to the story of Vassar’s first Man’s Studies Major, who created his own major from scratchas an example of the freedom students here have in pursuing what they are interested in. Each time, Lempert will tack on the same joke at the end, “…and he’s probably working at GQ or Spike TV, or wherever one goes with a Man’s Studies degree.”
And guides are always looking for new material: Last Saturday, Reddy-Best was leading a tour when she and her group passed the outdoor classroom by Ely Hall. Inside the circle of rocks, imbedded into the ground were toothbrushes inspiring Reddy-Best to launch into a story of this year’s April Fool’s prank.
“I got to talk about a side of Vassar that I don’t often get to talk about,” said Reddy-Best. “The silliness of the student body.”
At Vassar, April first marks not only a day of college pranks, but brings with it warmer weather and a new crop of visiting students. Regular decisions came out only a couple of weeks ago, and in attendance were some prospective students eager to be at the College.
At times like these, the guide and the visitors feed off each other’s energy.
“They’re excited,” said Reddy-Best, “and now you’re excited.”