Choosing a college is like placing an order at the Cheesecake Factory: You’re presented with so many scrumptious options that it’s overwhelming. A campus tour is like a free sample, offering a taste of what’s ahead without revealing the whole cake. Visiting lets prospective first-years penetrate the purple bubble, step into the shoes of Williams students and get a flavor of life on campus. Or does it? Now that I’ve got most of freshman year under my belt, I ventured to revisit the touring process. I wanted to see if a campus tour feels any different from an enrolled student’s perspective – just as I’m sure employees of the Cheesecake Factory sneak bites just to make sure the taste doesn’t change too much from shift to shift.
I crashed a tour led by Nora Kern ’12. According to Kern, giving tours for the past two years has increased her appreciation for the multifaceted College community. “It’s made me look at all the parts of campus. I can’t just talk about crew,” said Kern, who rows for the women’s crew team. For a school of 2000, there’s a lot going on. Right off the bat, Kern highlighted a few facts about the College that were news to me: We have a cake decorating club, Williams receives more National Science Foundation Pell Grants than any other liberal arts college and Williamstown’s Summer Theater Festival won an Emmy. I also learned that every sandwich at Pappa Charlie’s is named after someone who attended said festival.
Judging by the tour, I imagine that prospective students held bland impressions of the buildings on campus. Paresky was empty, void of energy. Schapiro seemed similarly subdued. And then there’s Goodrich. From the looks of the rustic breakfast café by day, I never would’ve pegged the place for a raging nighttime hotspot. With the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, the stone building seems more like a church than a party palace. But having experienced many a First Fridays, I know there’s another side to the place.
Any mention of the drinking culture is notably absent from the tour. Parents and prospective students alike seemed oblivious to the Keystone Light cans littering the lawn. I know I was too as a prefrosh once upon a time. Tours downplay the prominence of drinking on campus, mentioning only legal spots like the ’82 Grill, glossing over any underage boozing that may occur in first-year entries. “Drinking is a tough question for me to discuss as a tour guide,” Kern said. “I try to highlight the positive aspects of the College. But when parents ask, I have to be fair. I tell them that there is drinking but that the College expects people to act like responsible adults.”
Another vibrant culture seems to go unnoticed by those attending the tour: the stress culture. At 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Schow seems peaceful, almost relaxing. Tours peer through the glass windows in the science atrium, looking down at students casually flipping through course readers or surfing Facebook on library computers. If only tours passed through 12 hours earlier, they would see the throng of bleary-eyed students being chased out by security, coffee cups in hand, trying to cram for a test in six hours. One parent asked if Williams students are academically competitive. “Students here aren’t that competitive with one another,” Kern answered. “But they’re definitely competitive with themselves. I don’t know my friends’ grades, but I do know that students here work really, really hard.” It does seem true that students compete less with their friends than with the faceless applicants competing for spots in med school, law school or Ph.D. programs. But a tour alone can’t convey the intensity of the academic climate.
In fact, tours convey very little about Williams compared to what I’ve experienced. It’s not that Kern did a poor job. She was fantastic – personable, articulate and engaging. There’s just so much about the College that can’t be conveyed on a tour. It doesn’t tell you how disconcerting it is to get a C for the first time in your life, to study for hours and feel like it’s not paying off. But it also won’t tell you how much fun you’ll have staying up until 6 a.m. talking with friends. It doesn’t tell you how many fascinating life stories you’ll hear in the first week alone, how you’ll befriend people you never thought you’d speak to, how much your world will expand. What the tour offers is a taste of vanilla cheesecake: sweet, reliable, but fairly generic. What Williams actually delivers is Godiva chocolate: bittersweet, multi-layered, exotic. It’s never boring, often surprising and it takes more than a single slice to understand. But thankfully, it’s delicious.