Where the Next Four Years Begin
By Chelsea Hennessy ’11
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
In a 60-minute campus tour, Rhodes Diplomats present the college dream of academic excellence swirled with the promise of the person you can become here. Parents glimpse the well-adjusted young adults, while their sons and daughters perceive an idyllic escape from parental regulation and high school drama. Rhodes appears like an alternate universe of Gothic archways, black leather couches and a Starbucks within walking distance. Although, at this point in their lives, most are so eager to get away from home a tent would satisfy.
In this state of mind, students and parents could easily conjure an image of Rhodes that doesn’t match the reality. The campus tour, for most students, is the one shot Rhodes has to present the real undercurrents of life here. As the College Board Web site says, “You can’t judge a college by its brochure.” The campus tour is one of the few opportunities for prospective students to talk with Rhodes students.
Assistant director of Admissions Beverly Brooks says, “The Diplomats have more impact than anyone on staff. These are people who could be in classes with you or in your fraternity or sorority, so that makes it seem more real.”
Caroline King ’06, another assistant director of Admissions adds, “Colin Johnson, a senior, is on the cross country team and he latches onto any student who is planning on running. A couple of years ago every student he wanted to come to Rhodes came!”
Because student tours play such a vital role in the decision-making process, many Admissions offices at other colleges elect to pitch money at tour guide programs. But does monetary compensation for tour guides ensure a higher quality tour? Not according to dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Dave Wottle. He contends that a paycheck doesn’t attract the right candidate for this high-profile position. To him, the volunteer nature of the job makes all the difference in the mentality of the tour guide.
“Students who really love Rhodes and are doing well here want to talk about it; they are the best advertisement of all,” says Wottle.
The philosophy works; the prospect of giving back to the institution that formed you is ample payment for the Rhodes College Diplomats.
Jarrett Tate ’11 says, “The money doesn’t even factor in.”
Applications for this volunteer position consistently pour in; last year more than 120 applied and 25 were selected.
Choosing the Diplomats involves a lengthy process of applications, interviews and deliberation. Admissions staff members and the student Steering Committee select them.
“We want students with experiences they can talk about,” King says.
The tour guides must be able to answer rude questions with grace and difficult ones with fluidity; their honesty and poise will be tested. There are a lot of tough, unavoidable questions that are simply the nature of college life: Do kids drink on campus? What about crime in Memphis? The Diplomats concentrate on the safeguards Rhodes enacts to keep students safe and healthy.
“I am always just bowled over by how articulate our students are,” Wottle says.
So you think you can guide? Those ombudsmen who make it past the gauntlet of applications and interviews attend mock tours and receive a training packet with answers to frequently asked questions. They aren’t thrown into the lion pit without preparation. Guides are encouraged to memorize basic facts and statistics, but stories are far more valuable.
“When our visitors are spending an hour with a student we want that to be more valuable than something they could have gotten at home,” says King. “It’s not about memorizing the year the buildings were built; families can get statistics from the Web site. We want them to feel like they are already students here."
Allyson Pellisier ’10 says, “The things I wind up talking about are the things that have been the most meaningful for me here.”
Tour guides have to pull a Walt Disney and find a multigenerational appeal, something that engages the students but is also informational for the parents. Guides generally start the tour by asking the group what they are interested in.
According to Dan Schrader ’10, making the tour run smoothly is “one of those things that’s just in the moment.”
Says Sarika Mirchandani ’12, “When we talk about how the student to faculty ratio is 10.5:1, I say that I’m probably that half person.”
John Nichols ’10 says, “I always like to stop in front of President Troutt’s portrait in Barret Library and briefly pay homage to him.”
Schrader talks about the one thing every student has to do before graduation. He tells them, “You have to ride the lynx statue, but you can’t get caught because there is a $50 fine.”
To Pellissier, giving tours is a bit of a guessing game to figure out what part of campus that student would be most interested in.
She says, “Then you get to highlight the parts of Rhodes that are most relevant to them.” Each tour is personalized and addresses the group’s interests.
What happens after the tour? The relationship doesn’t have to be over if the visiting students don’t want it to be. Business cards allow prospective students to initiate contact.
“Diplomat business cards are our most recent attempt to extend communication beyond our visitors’ on-campus experience. We don’t want to be overburdening and call them all the time,” explains Nichols.
Schrader says, “You develop a personal interest in some prospective students because they are genuinely interested in Rhodes—those are ones who will e-mail you after the tour.”
King says of the Diplomat amenity, “It just makes sense. If they represent the college they need to have business cards.”
The Admissions Office places trust in these students to present the most genuine and positive depiction of Rhodes. When asked if Diplomats feel any censorship pressure to circumvent certain topics, the overwhelming response was “No.” Nothing is off limits.
Pellissier says, “The only thing we are asked to do is not to lie; we have an honesty policy. The Admissions Office wants people to come to Rhodes but they also care about retention. They want students to come to Rhodes for what it is, not what we present it to be.”
Mirchandani adds, “Not only are we asked to answer honestly, but if we don’t know the answer, we are just to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and I think they would rather hear that. I don’t feel bad about saying ‘I don’t know’ because I handle it the right way. I can e-mail them and then let them know the answer to their question.”
The Diplomats have free rein because they have earned it.
Brooks says, “I think it makes the parents feel free to ask anything–and get real answers.”
Like the embodiment of the honor code, students are trusted.
What may be most surprising is that the majority of the tour organization is done by Rhodes students. Admissions officers rarely interfere.
“We are just there to facilitate,” says Brooks, who advises the program with King.
The three members of the Steering Committee, all seniors, do the brunt of the labor. Ali Goostree schedules meetings, makes announcements and recruits Diplomats in the spring. John Nichols directs overnight hosting and transportation and Peter Zanca handles the tour schedule. Together the three lead the monthly meetings.
Since the Diplomats aren’t paid, each student has a personal reason for volunteering.
“Being a Diplomat allows me to share my college experience with someone going through the decision process,” senior Diplomat Colin Johnson explains. “I appreciated honest insights when I was applying to colleges, and I like being able to give that to a visiting family so they can make the choice that’s right for them.”
The overriding reason that Diplomats volunteer their time is best expressed by King: “When you love Rhodes, you want to share it with other people who will thrive here.”