Although roughly 25 years have passed since I left the River Campus for graduate school and then a career (both here in the Washington, D.C. area), I can still remember what drew me back to the University of Rochester as an admissions volunteer. It was a simple mailed pamphlet; bereft of imagery on the cover, it simply read, “Replace Yourself.” This two-word call to action implored those of us fortunate enough to find Rochester to help recruit subsequent cohorts of even brighter and more talented students. For those of us who felt that Rochester actually found us, not the other way around, the sense of duty is often even more profound.
Soon thereafter, the same spirit that had driven me to host prospective freshmen as an undergraduate was revived to assist the Office of Admissions in a new role. URInvolved was then called the Volunteer Admissions Network, but its role would be easily recognizable today. We staffed college fairs, visited high schools and interviewed prospective students through individual meetings and daylong sessions.
Many of the changes over time are as simple and easy to appreciate as the switch from VAN to URInvolved; for example, the tradition of interviewing students in our homes has evolved to leverage more neutral territory, such as coffee houses and bookstores.
In the early 1990s, Rochester’s brand was not as well recognized as it is today. For every student who approached my college fair table or met me at a high school session to ask specific questions about one of our world-class programs, there seemed far more whose exposure to Rochester was close to non-existent.
Now, a wealth of online resources, from mobile-responsive websites to vibrant social media channels, make such an occurrence less frequent. Yet on occasion I’ll still be asked if Rochester is a suburb of New York City or if the University offers political science, music, or engineering. I always try to take such requests in stride, remembering that almost nothing prepares a 16- or 17-year-old for the college search process.
In fact, a student’s or parent’s knowledge gap presents an opportunity for URInvolved volunteers to educate without putting anyone on the spot. Years ago at a college fair, a parent cut me off when I described Rochester as a national research university. She was concerned that research always came at the expense of undergraduate teaching. However, when I went on to explain the unique role that undergraduates play in Rochester research as well as how that work is fostered by the faculty, she admitted that our university might be an exception to her self-imposed belief.
The same is true for the interview sessions, whether they’re held in a coffee shop or a hotel conference room. Even the most accomplished student can have issues talking about himself or herself in a comprehensive way. For many students, high school is a series of advances with the occasional setback; there is a progression, but not necessarily a well-honed narrative. And to be honest, how many of us at that age could have clearly articulated exactly what we expected from the college experience, let alone the dividends we hoped it would pay throughout a lifetime?
During a now-famous commencement speech to Stanford University graduates, Steve Jobs summarized his own college experience and impact by stating you can’t connect the dots forward, only backward. So, if you encounter a student who struggles in the interview, treat it as an opportunity to practice your active listening and communication skills. Every student has things that generate interest and fuel passion. Walking the line between an interview that is evaluative, yet also conversational, can take you and the interviewee in countless directions.
Ultimately, what makes an effective admissions volunteer? Knowledge is key, but don’t worry if you don’t have every Rochester statistic or offering memorized. Students will always go online for more detail, so aspire to be their guide, not their oracle. Certainly enthusiasm also plays a major role; we do this for love, not for profit. Finally, a combination of dispassion and empathy is vital, even if that sounds contradictory. Some applicants just aren’t a good fit for Rochester and the Office of Admissions respects our insight in this regard. Yet others just need a little encouragement to shine during the application process.
Many prospective Rochester students and their parents view us (consciously or subconsciously) not just as gatekeepers, but also brand ambassadors. They sense our interest in the applicant, as well as commitment to our alma mater. Finding your own combination of these and other traits can help extend and deepen your connection to Rochester, while you also seek to “replace yourself.”