By Marie Dilg
The sun is showing no mercy on this late July afternoon. It is 98 degrees with a heat index of 107, yet Briana Wright is barely breaking a sweat as she leads a group of prospective students and their parents on an hour-long tour of campus. Having mastered the backward walk of an experienced tour guide, Wright points out the highlights -- Pius XII Memorial Library, Simon Recreation Center, the residence halls, Busch Student Center and more. (See map below.)
Then, she gets into what the high school seniors and their parents really want to know.
Can I use my meal card at the fitness center smoothie bar? (Yes.)
Can I paint my residence hall room? (No.)
Are members of the opposite sex allowed on freshman residence hall floors? (Not after 1 a.m.)
Where can I get a good grilled cheese sandwich? (Ameren Café in John and Lucy Cook Hall.)
Is it safe to walk around campus after dark? (Yes.)
"Showing off campus is like showing off my home," said Wright, a junior from Connecticut majoring in Spanish and Latin American studies. "I found such a sense of community when I came to SLU, and I'm passionate about sharing it with others."
It Takes One to Know One
Wright is one of 30 SLU students who work as ambassadors in the office of admission. They support the University's admission counselors by answering phones, confirming visit appointments, sending out mailings, answering the office support line and appearing on student panels during recruitment weekends. Campus tours are their primary responsibility.
"Our students are our best salespeople," said Wendy Hamstra-Smith, assistant director of campus visits and a former ambassador. "Prospective students want to talk to students who've been in their shoes. They want unbiased answers about how much time our students spend studying, which classes are hardest and where they spend their downtime."
Steve Siemborski, an accounting junior from Cleveland, was so impressed with his student-led SLU tour when he came to campus three years ago that he couldn't wait to become an ambassador. He started leading tours the second half of his freshman year and now trains and supervises other ambassadors.
"I'd been on tours at other schools where they were led by a faculty member or a grad student, and they weren't very relatable," Siemborski said. "I try to keep my tours in the first person. I tell my guests I like to go to Busch Center and eat Chick-fil-A; this is where I sit in class; this is where my friends come to throw the Frisbee around; that kind of stuff.
"When a student is making the decision about where he or she is going to spend the next four years," he continued, "hearing from another student that this is a warm place, this is a safe place and this is a place where they can grow, really helps that prospective student connect with us."
The ambassador application process is competitive. In addition to the 30 ambassadors responsible for tours, the admission office needs six tele-ambassadors to call prospective students and assist them with the application process.
For the 10 or 15 slots that open each year, 40 or 50 students apply. Even before they can be considered, students must have volunteered with the Billiken Buddy program, through which SLU students host high school students in their residence halls and allow them to shadow classes. The applicants also must be involved in campus activities, submit letters of reference and have an outgoing personality that shines through in a series of interviews.
Jon Schwendeman is an ambassador who worked his way up during the last three years to a leadership position in the visit office. While he still gives the occasional tour, his responsibilities include facilitating student panels, scheduling tours and interviewing candidates.
"We look for students who aren't giving tours because it's their job but because they have a genuine love for SLU that they can share," said Schwendeman, a finance senior from St. Louis. "We select students who understand the mission of SLU and how it relates to their personal mission, values and goals. For them, it's almost effortless to give a tour."
Leila Houshmand made the cut in the second half of her freshman year. When a prospective student arrives in the admission office for an unscheduled tour, her hand is among the first to go up.
"Giving tours is an honor," said Houshmand, a junior from Collinsville, Ill., who is pursuing a double major in political science and public health. "The best part is when the tour ends and a student says to me that she can tell how much I love my school. To be able to translate that during the tour and spark something in a student is very rewarding."