Unlike tour guides at many other campuses, UMass Amherst guides don’t set parental nerves on edge by walking backwards while they talk—but they do know the campus backwards and forwards.
Being a tour guide is one of the most coveted student jobs on campus, says Spencer Fetrow ’07, ’09G, a former guide who now, as manager of visitor relations, supervises a staff of 40 guides. Last spring 600 students applied for just 15 openings. Fetrow looks for gregarious, well-rounded students who reflect the diversity of UMass Amherst undergraduates and are deeply involved in campus life: in-state and out-of-state students, artists, scientists, varsity athletes, debaters. These faces of the campus host 40,000 visitors per year, more than double the number of a decade ago, Fetrow says.
History major Adam Karp ’13, says that the enthusiastic leader of his tour when he visited campus from Newton, Mass., convinced him to attend UMass Amherst. He became a guide himself his freshman year to share his positive college experience and to develop his public speaking skills.
Guides receive intensive training and study a 100-page manual replete with details about meal plans, campus history, landmarks, the bus system, and much more. On their tours they must cover essential information and make standard stops (including the library, a residence hall, and an academic building), but they also have the freedom to tailor their talks.
Guide Leo Sheehan ’14, president of Theta Chi fraternity, adds a plug for Greek Life. “I try to stamp out some of the negative stereotypes and raise awareness of our community service work,” he says.
Guides who walk forward rather than backward don’t worry about tripping, but they do worry about giving the campus its due. Says Fetrow, “Newly hired guides might stress about having enough to say for 75 minutes, but very soon they’re trying to figure out how to fit everything in.”
And occasionally visitor relations staff have to deal with embarrassing situations, such as when the mother of a prospective student told a guide, “You seem like a nice boy, here’s my daughter’s phone number.”