Tours from the guides’ eyes: the good, the bad and the unusual

They know the story behind Sawyer and why Mission is named Mission. They say hi to everyone on campus and can walk backward with ease. And, for the dozens of the prospectives that filter through our campus each week, they are Williams incarnate.

Tour guides have a certain mystique. Maybe it is because many of us remember being led through an unfamiliar campus by one back in those fuzzy days of college decision making. We remember them as relaxed, articulate, wholly knowledgeable of obscure dates and anecdotes, and possessing of impressive vocal projection.

Tour guides are an integral aspect of the college selection process. Admissions Secretary Kim Altiere admits that the tour guide is “sometimes what makes or breaks [a prospective’s] decision to attend Williams.” According to Torie Gorges ’00, guides try to minimize this tendency by “encouraging visitors to look around the school beyond the tour, so that their only perspective on Williams will not be that of the tour guide.” But the tour guides seem to take the stresses of first impressions right in stride. “It’s not really awkward being a tour guide,” says Dan Elsea ’02. “It’s really fun.”

Tour guide co-coordinators Gorges ’00 and Lauren Siegal ’00 looked for confidence like Elsea’s when they selected the staff of guides last spring. “There are no particular types of people we look for,” said Gorges. “But we do want people who are articulate, and who will make prospective students comfortable.” Tour guides often have this as their principal goal when leading tours. “The college admission process can he very stressful,” said tour guide Phil Swisher ’01, “so I try to put prospective students and their parents at ease and get them to relax during the tour.”

The number of accepted guides fluctuates yearly, as it is contigent on how many guides are graduating or studying away in the given year. Of the 45 applicants last year, 30 were interviewed and, based on those interviews, 14 new guides were accepted. The highly competitive nature of the selection process indicates the important role of the guide. In essence, these students are the filter through which most prospectives first view our college.

This isn’t to say that the job of tour guide is necessarily a stressful one. Once they’ve been around the block a few times, guides invariably relish the experience of leading a group of wide-eyed pre-frosh and their inquisitive parents through the center of campus. Along the way, many guides have had experiences that are funny, incriminating or just plain odd.

Elsea speaks of a tour that gave the group an unexpected revelation on campus life. “I was showing a common room in an entry in Sage. We call ahead of time to avoid walking into compromising situations, but it really didn’t do much this time. As we walked into the common room, I noticed that one recycling bin was overflowing with empty beer cans and the other was full of empty liquor bottles. By the time I saw this, my tour was already in the room. One of the fathers pointed at the recycling bins and said ‘Wow, you guys are really into recycling here!’ I was very embarrassed initially, but then it turned into a joke at the expense of environmental awareness here at Williams.”

Apparently, avid environmentalism isn’t Williams’ only reputation. Swisher describes a tour on which a parent “was convinced that Williams was the largest narcotics distribution hub in New England.” The parent “repeatedly badgered me to show him where all the drugs were hidden and kept asking me if I could get him a discount,” Swisher said.

Other notable queries include the suspicious friendliness of the campus squirrels, the sex lives of students and questions about internal administrative goings-on. Swisher also mentions another surprisingly frequent experience on tours. “Parents have approached me individually after my tour and asked, in a low and very conspiratorial tone, ‘So what’s the secret to get in here?’ I never know what answer they’re looking for. Do they want the real secret, that if they write, ‘the purple cow flies at midnight’ in invisible ink on the top left corner of page gour of their application they will automatically be admitted? Or do they want me to extol the virtues of the wonderfully diverse group of students we have here and how there is no ‘secret’ at all?”

Though some questions catch guides off guard, most tour guides say that an odd question beats no question any day. After all, when a group has nothing to say and a guide is forced to maintain a running monologue through the entire hour, some inaccuracies are bound to emerge, though embellishment is discouraged. “Tour guides are told not to invent information on tours under any circumstances, and I don’t think that our guides do make up stories,” Gorges said. Elsea concurred: “Although we may embellish and exaggerate traditions and old College legends, we never make up facts. We’re very good about that. We get this packet full of College facts and we must use it when quoting factual information.”

Indeed, tour guide ratings have shown that prospective students and parents are impressed with the tours. “The tour guide rating cards are a sign that our guides a giving a broad picture of Williams. Our tour guides are consistently given high ratings across the board,” said Gorges. “Visitors frequently mention that they were pleased that their guide gave so much information on so many things at Williams, and was happy to answer specific questions.”

However, an anonymous tour guide divulged one ad-libbed performance, unbeknownst to his tour. “On this tour, my group was kind of unexciting and bland, and no one was asking questions. I glanced over and noticed that a group of sophomores was walking along the road by Chapin and only freshmen were walking on the paths by the side of the frosh quad. So, to fill the void of time, I told my tour that sophomores were not allowed to walk on the frosh quad paths and were relegated to walking on the road. They were very amazed by this and asked me questions about it. They were asking me questions about this, but not the entry system?!”

As far as rating prospectives’ and their parents’ behavior, guides are overwhelmingly positive. “On the whole,” said Swisher, “prospectives and their parents are delightful people who are polite, well-mannered and a lot of fun to interact with. The greatest part of being a tour guide is when a frosh comes up to me and thanks me for being their tour guide.”

Elsea considers his best tour experience to be one that consisted only of one prospective and his parents. “We had a wonderful tour,” he said. “They enjoyed the tour so much, they invited me to Pappa Charlie’s for a bite to eat.”

Embellishments aside, tour guides seem to provide an invaluable service to impressionable prospectives. And ratings show: perhaps what they don’t know about the workings of the tour can’t hurt them.