Alex Mazze answered the door at his family’s house in Rockville on Sunday morning, then jumped back: A huge red bus was rumbling on the street out front of his house, a small crowd of people wearing red had gathered around his door, neighbors were staring, and video cameras were rolling.
“Alex?” a woman asked the bilingual senior at Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School, who had just woken up. “I’m Shannon Gundy, the director of admissions at the University of Maryland. Congratulations, you’ve been admitted to Maryland!”
“Whoa,” he said. “Oh my goodn– … Really?”
Testudo, the school’s furry terrapin mascot, went in for a hug. People cheered. His parents looked as if they might cry.
Over the coming weeks and months, college admissions announcements will be made to hundreds of thousands of students. Some will get an e-mail. Some will get a letter. Some, like most of U-Md.’s applicants later this week, will log on to a Web site to find out their fate.
For the students and families waiting anxiously at the end of a process so long, so fraught, so emotional, an electronic message is an impersonal, sudden end. It is for admissions staff, as well — especially at big schools like U-Md. where they have been working nights and weekends, reading through 28,000 applications from students, most of whom they never meet.
This year, for the first time, U-Md. officials decided to make it personal.
For six students, chosen mostly at random, officials literally walked right up to the door and gave them a hug.
“We don’t have a clue what to expect,” Gundy said as the bus rolled out of campus Sunday morning, full of admissions staff members wearing Maryland-flag scarves, turtle brooches and red scarves, jackets, a cape and a bow tie. “We hope the students will be as excited as we are.”
Years ago, the staff would end the admissions process with a Saturday spent stuffing acceptance letters into envelopes, then line the halls and applaud when the mail trucks came to take the boxes away. More recently, hoping to get a sense of some of the excitement and relief of those decisions, they gathered in a conference room following social media — enjoying the elated tweets announcing acceptances, watching YouTube videos parents shot of their kids reacting to the decision.
They try throughout the process to reassure families, make them less anxious, Gundy said. But it’s not easy on either end.
This year, they decided to get in on the fun part. All in.
The bus had slowed Sunday, in a Silver Spring neighborhood of small brick houses and metal fences. Jordan Ford, assistant director of marketing communications enrollment management, called out from the back of the bus, “Okay, we’re about two turns away, so get ready!”
Everyone stopped chattering. Testudo’s head went back on. The bus inched between battered pickups and cars parked along each side of the road. “My heart is racing,” Gundy said.
“There’s Bemnet’s dad!” someone called out, as though he were an old friend. Ford had called one parent at each home, asked them if a surprise would be okay and urged them to keep it a secret.
Gundy knocked on the door, and Bemnet Zewdie, a student who was born in rural Ethiopia and came to the United States when he was 7, answered. He was so stunned that when Gundy congratulated him, he choked out, “Great!” and took a big gulp of air.
His mother, Haregwa Belete, stood to the side, clasping her hands in front of her mouth as though praying, or trying not to laugh aloud, or sob. “My son,” she said. “I’m so proud!”
They had been so anxious, she said, waiting for the decisions. Bemnet kept logging onto the admission’s Web site, but there was no update.
The family used to share a basement home with another family, able to afford only one meal a day. Bemnet hopes, one day, to help bring electricity to rural areas overseas.
Neighbors cracked open screen doors, watching. Just before the bus rolled away, Belete ran back out, still in a cotton flowered nightgown with a fleece jacket over it and flip-flops over slipper socks, carrying a basket full of small, silver-wrapped packages. In her culture, she told the admissions staffers as they each took one of the fruit granola bars, it was traditional to give gifts.
“Look at them hugging,” someone said as the bus started up again, headed north, to find the next student. “Awwwwwwwwwwww.”
In Potomac, the bus squeezed through the winding streets of a neighborhood of large homes, where the SUVs were tucked away in three-car garages and the lawns were freshly landscaped. Someone called out the house number. “There it is! Go, team, go!”
Laura Werber opened the door, widened her eyes, and never stopped beaming. She laughed, and hugged her brother Doug, who graduated from U-Md. last spring, jumping up and down.
“This is her dream school,” Doug Werber said.
Laura had been dreading school Friday — that’s the day she thought she would find out. She wasn’t sure she could take it. “All my friends know I want to get in. I didn’t want to deal with all the, ‘Are you nervous?’ ‘Have you heard?’” she said.
She laughed. “This is the best thing ever!”
Neighbors had come over and were posing with Testudo and congratulating Laura’s parents. One of them told an admissions staffer that they had known Laura, who was co-editor of her yearbook and won a scholar-athlete award, since she was a toddler. Every time someone gets into college, there’s a community that celebrates. The bus honked as it pulled away, and they cheered and waved.
“I feel like I’m going to cry real hard,” Gundy said. Someone passed around a box of tissues.
The next house was only 15 minutes away, in Rockville. On the bus, people talked about how they had saved all their admissions letters. A man walking his dog stopped to watch as the bus parked in front of a brick house.
“This is for real?” Alex asked, incredulous. After Gundy convinced him, a huge grin lit up his face. He darted onto the grass in his socks, held up his phone and asked if he could take a selfie with her.
“Alex, I’m so proud of you,” said his dad, Seth Mazze. “You have worked so hard all these years.”
A mom led her small children, still in their footie pajamas, by the hand to see the bus and the terrapin. They waved and cheered.
“You can ask any senior,” Alex said as the staff gathered for a photo by the bus. “The college process is a stressful one.” You have to try to present yourself — who you are, what you have done, what you hope to do — on a piece of paper, he said. “That’s difficult do to.”
He has wanted to go to U-Md. for a long time, he said, to study science. “I’m still in shock.
“This is so amazing,” he said, then blurted out the applause line everyone on the bus had been hoping for: “I’m going to Maryland!”