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    April 22, 2002

Student Tour Guides are Key
to Positive First Impression
By Jim Smith

Around 10:30 on an overcast Saturday morning, a group of high school students and their parents - 60 people in all - start gathering in the atrium of the Lodewick Visitors Center in Storrs. The students seem very young and their expressions range from hopeful to stricken.

They are, nevertheless, on the verge of making a decision that will resonate through the rest of their lives. And the next two hours will have enormous bearing on what they decide. They are on campus for a tour.

"It's no accident that 3,000 new students show up here every fall," says John Barry, associate director of university communications . "We have developed an effective recruiting process, and the Lodewick Visitors Center and our student tour program are at the center of that process.

"Our research corroborates what national research consistently shows - that for a high percentage of prospective students, the campus tour is the single biggest influence on whether they will attend a particular college or university. So we work really hard to ensure that our tours succeed."

A Slice of University Life
The students and their parents fill out registration forms and flip through back issues of the alumni magazine Traditions. At 11 o'clock, they are invited into the presentation room of the Visitors Center, where they meet their tour guides, Taryn Meccariello and Haley Leone. The guides will spend the next half hour taking their guests through a multimedia overview of the University, before dividing them into two groups for a tour of campus.

So what are prospective students and their parents looking for when they tour the University? What can they realistically expect to learn, during a two-hour visit?

"We don't guess about this," Barry says. "Our research tells us that once students and parents have decided UConn is worth a look, they really want to know what life is going to be like if they come here: 'What's a dorm room like?' 'What will I eat?' They come for the tour because they are convinced of our academic quality, but they have a lot of questions about life beyond the classroom."

A key to the success of the tours is the tour guides. Since nearly all of the questions they will field during the two-hour orientation and tour have to do with various aspects of student life, the 40 or so guides are UConn undergraduates.

"Prospective students welcome information from young people who are not much older than themselves," says Meg Malmborg, manager of the Lodewick Visitors Center, which has been handling the tours since the Center opened last year. "They are perceived as more credible.

"We know that the more contact prospective students have with students who are enthusiastic advocates for the University, the more likely they are to apply. So we are very selective about the students who lead the tours."

The guides are drawn from a cross-section of the student population, representing many different majors. They also are culturally diverse and come from different places. "Most of all," Malmborg says, "they are competent, articulate spokespeople." The guides receive extensive training, and understand UConn's marketing objectives.

Founts of Knowledge
The Lodewick Visitors Center offers tours seven days a week, throughout the year, and up to five tours each day. The number of tours has increased by 20 percent during the last two years. In April alone - one of the busiest months - guides will lead more than 3,000 visitors around the Storrs campus.

Indeed, for some 30,000 people every year, the tours represent the first - and potentially last - exposure to UConn. So Taryn and Haley had better be good.

They are. Their knowledge of the University and its programs is both broad and deep. Even more impressive is that they do not come across as "canned." Their presentation is conversational and often draws upon their personal experiences.

The visitors toss a variety of questions at the two young women. It quickly becomes clear that it's tough to "stump the band."

A student wants to know about computer accessibility. There are computer laboratories in almost every building, Haley says. All residence halls have a lab. There are 500 computers in Babbidge Library alone.

A parent wants to know how "wild" freshman dorms are. They are "dry," because their residents are all under age, explains Taryn, and they have the strictest environment of any residence halls. She notes that the Northwest complex, where a third of freshman live, offers an array of support services to help new students. She is quick to point out for the prospective students, however, that "the freshman dorms have a great community with lots of activities."

It will go on like this for the next hour and a half, as each guide takes a group on a walk around campus. They will visit the new Chemistry Building, Babbidge Library, the student recreation facility, and a residence hall, where a model room provides an opportunity to see the kind of living space new students are likely to occupy. Along the way, the tour guides will touch upon a wide array of topics: athletics, the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, healthcare, the University's museums, the many implications of the UConn 2000 program.

By the end of the tour, they have answered an equally wide array of questions. Throughout, they have come across as gracious ambassadors, knowledgeable guides, and enthusiastic advocates for the University. And it is clear from the reactions of the prospective students and their parents that the experience has been positive.

"If prospective students can see the University through the eyes of a current student, who is enthusiastic about his or her experience, they are much more likely to relate to it," says Barry. "That's why the tours are such an important part of our marketing efforts."

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