“You learn where the broken bricks are,” Donaldson said. “You learn where the dips in the ground are.”
For many colleges and universities in the District and across the country, spring and summer are a busy time for campus tours like the one Donaldson was leading. It is a stretch in the calendar when students and families descend on sleepy campuses and dream of what could be.
Different schools have different approaches to all of this, including the direction a guide will face on tour.
Not to suggest this is a comprehensive investigation into the various walking tours of U.S. colleges, but guides at American University are discouraged from walking backward. It is in their handbook.
Guides walk with families (and not backward) at George Washington University, an urban campus where facing the opposite direction could be a safety hazard. The Catholic University of America does not direct its tour guides either way, a school official said, but most do not walk backward.
“Just because we have a pretty hilly campus,” said Paige Wearmouth, a campus visit assistant at Catholic University. “You don’t want to find yourself walking down a hill backward.”
One parent on the Georgetown tour said he had been on more than 20 campus visits, and most of the time, guides had walked backward. College tour guides of America: Solidify your position on this. Anyway, we should keep moving.
Tours like these can help personalize the college experience. They can assuage fears, and spark the imagination. They can help show a future student that this sprawling, intimidating place — so strange to them — could one day become their home.
“It’s one thing to read the websites, and read reviews, and go on College Confidential,” said Jaime Briseno, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown. “But visiting . . . is what really gets the, sort of, flavor of the campus.”
GWU, a school in the District’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, has instituted a layered approach to help future students and their families understand its bustling campus. There is the traditional campus tour, said Costas Solomou, the university’s dean of admissions. But students can build on that experience, checking out smaller schools and colleges within the university, tailored to their area of interest. They can explore, Solomou said, and get a full picture.
“What the tour does — it’s more a gut component, right? That you see yourself at GW. You get to experience it more intimately,” Solomou said.
The campus introduction process can start early at Howard University, the historically black school known as the Mecca. The university in the District offers tours and information sessions, Howard’s director of admissions, LaTrice Byam, said. It also takes steps to court younger visitors.
For those future Bison — elementary and middle school students, or children involved in community groups — Howard rolls out a scavenger hunt.
“It gets them excited about it at a young age,” Byam said. “Hopefully, they’ll decide to come back and visit when they get old enough to consider Howard University and apply.”
Things can get a bit high-tech at American University, a school that recently added augmented reality posters for those making campus visits.
American has a mobile app that lets prospective students take a self-guided tour, said Tiana Hakimzadeh, the university’s associate director for on-campus programs.
Along that self-guided route, visitors find a few poster displays that “come to life” when they hold up their phone to it, Hakimzadeh said, a Harry Potter-esque touch that can lead to some distinctive photo ops. One such stop is a poster in an arena, which will prompt an informational video about AU athletics.
“When the video ends, our school mascot, Clawed, actually jumps out of the poster and freezes for you to take a photo with him,” Hakimzadeh said. “The user can then walk up to Clawed, put their arm around him, and then someone can take a picture of them with the school mascot.”
Which, depending on your personal views on mascots, is either extremely cool or extremely unsettling.
The office of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, the school where Donaldson serves as a guide, hosted about 24,500 prospective students in 2017, and about 60,200 total visitors for information sessions and tours, according to the university.
Many come to campus in June, July and August, but there’s also a surge in March and April.
Donaldson said she has gotten something out of all of these tours, too. When she came to Georgetown as a freshman, she had trouble adjusting at first. She was far from her Georgia home, and everything was so different.
“When I started giving tours is when I started to think of Georgetown as home for me,” she said. “Now, I’m not homesick anymore. Of course, I still miss my family. But I’ve made a new family here.”