Tour guides highlight campus landmarks

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April 18, 2008

3:10 AM

It’s not often that one can call Thomas Jefferson a perv and get away with it, but tour guides at the College do it on a daily basis.

Despite the name calling, TJ is always a good sport. Of course, it helps that he’s made of bronze.

Most students are familiar with the story surrounding the statue that graces the open area between Washington and McGlothlin-Street Halls.

For those who aren’t, here’s a refresher: Tour guides say Jefferson borrowed $100,000 from the College to build the school we now know as the University of Virginia — a loan he never repaid. In honor of the College’s Tercentenary in 1993, U.Va. donated the statue as a symbolic settling of the debt.

The College’s neighbor to the west reportedly asked that Jefferson be situated so that he could stare longingly toward Charlottesville. Naturally, the statue faces east.

As bad as it is that TJ can’t even face the direction he apparently desires, the guides go on to impute his morals, reporting that a group of physics majors once measured the trajectory of his gaze and determined that he looks directly into the women’s bathroom on the third floor of Washington Hall.

The story is always a crowd pleaser and, as a result, the tour guides love to tell it. Never mind the fact that all the windows on the corresponding side of Washington peer only into classrooms and offices.

Stories like this get passed down each year from veteran guides to new recruits. Some are more accurate than others, but together they form an oral history that the guides use to sell the College to prospective students and their parents.

“We do get a tour guide manual,” Anuar Mubangu ’09 said. “But a lot of what we learn we get by shadowing tours when we’re getting trained. We adopt the stories and the way they’re told. Sometimes, they change a bit, like when we learned that it wasn’t Playboy that ranked the Crim Dell as the second most romantic spot on a college campus, but for the most part, they stay the same.”

As a result, there are distinct similarities in every tour. The stories are the same, as are the topics they cover, such as Residence Life and the Honor Code. At the same time, though, each tour is different.

“There’s certain information they have to cover, but we want them to talk about those things in the context of their William and Mary experience. In that sense, no two tours are the same,” said Wendy Livingston ’03, a former tour guide who is now an assistant dean of admissions and a coordinator of the tour guide program.

Each of the guides develop his or her own style, and they are encouraged to inject as much personality as possible. Some incorporate a selection of the many statistics about college life that the admissions office maintains, but they all rely heavily on anecdotal evidence.

Before her tour, Beth Mahalak ’09 warned her tour group that she has trouble remembering numbers, so she wouldn’t be including as many statistics as other guides might. Instead, she tries to tell a personal story that corresponds to most of the buildings that the group passes.

For example, Mahalak related her first time in picturesque Blair Hall to a popular television show.

“Blair is one of the prettiest halls on the inside,” she said to her tour group. “Does anyone watch ‘Gilmore Girls’? Blair reminds me of that show. The first time I walked in there, I thought, ‘This is what college is supposed to be.’”

Perhaps “Gilmore Girls” didn’t resonate with every person on the tour, but Mahalak banks on connections like this to make the College memorable to prospectives who often tour several campuses in a short period of time.

Another constant in the tour guide’s repertoire is humor. No tour of the College would be complete without the corny jokes that go over well with parents. Chloe Lewis ’11, however, likes to play to the students as well.

Tour guides often ask questions of their groups to keep them engaged — this inevitably leads to awkward pauses. Instead of waiting for an answer in the uncomfortable silence, Lewis will often pull from “Ferris Bueller” actor Ben Stein’s playbook, deadpanning his famous line: “Bueller? … Bueller?”

“I’m a bit of a performer at heart,” Lewis said. “I’m not sure everyone gets it, but the kids usually do, so I try to mix it up for them.”

Perhaps the most important skill that a tour guide must have, however, is the ability to improvise.

On many occasions, the tours are interrupted by boisterous students or landscapers wielding leaf blowers.

Sometimes, the distractions are a bit more extreme, like a streaker or a father who asks questions entirely in Spanish because he knows the guide has studied the language while abroad.

For some tour guides, however, the biggest distraction is walking backwards on brick walkways while wearing flip flops.

“I walk out of my flip flops at least once on every tour,” Mahalak said. “It completely stops my train of thought and then I usually stutter and stall for a few minutes as I try to regain my composure.”

Mubangu learned this lesson the hard way on her first solo tour. After losing a sandal for the third time within the first 10 minutes, she finally flipped them off and gave the rest of the tour barefoot.

Regardless of the type of distraction, the guide’s goal is to unflappably incorporate anything the tour throws at them.

These chance encounters, however, aren’t always unwelcome.
Austin Wiese ’10 was telling his tour the legend of the Crim Dell bridge when he spotted international relations professor Mike Tierney, whose class he had taken during a previous semester. Casually, he asked Tierney if he had a Crim Dell love story to share.

As if it had been planned, Tierney delivered.

“As a matter of fact my wife and I kissed on the top of the bridge before we were married, and it’s worked out so far,” he said.

Beyond Tierney’s corroboration of the bridge’s romantic powers, Wiese also used the encounter to bring up the strong relationship that students at the College share with their professors, citing how his discussions with Tierney have continued even after the class ended.

Moments like this are particularly valuable. Most tour-goers realize that the guides’ stories are necessarily contrived, so improvising from a chance encounter allows the guide to sound more genuine, which can make a good tour especially memorable. And that is the real goal of the tour guides — to make the College stand out.

It seems safe to say, then, that the job of a tour guide is more than simply being able to talk while walking backwards. Yet, they don’t even get paid.

Despite the fact that the guides all work on a volunteer basis, the application process is extremely competitive. Livingston said they typically interview between 180 and 220 students for only 30 to 35 positions.

It seems apparent, though, that the program attracts students who want to pass on their good experiences to those who may follow in their footsteps.

“My tour guide when I was here for the Admitted Students Day was incredible,” Lewis said. “They were the reason I came to William and Mary over schools like Yale and Georgetown. I think it would be amazing to be that influence for even just one kid.”

Mahalak agreed. “I became a tour guide in my sophomore year,” she said. “I honestly can tell you that it was one of my goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. As a tour guide, if I can be a part of someone’s wonderful experience visiting William and Mary, then I have met my goal.”

Wiese may have said it best, though.

“I want them to leave my tour in love with the College.”

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