Elmhurst College In Depth

The Art of Walking Backwards

Meet the Jaywalkers—the student ambassadors who show soon-to-be students around Elmhurst, showing off the campus and giving it a friendly face.

In most places, jaywalkers can get a ticket from overzealous cops. At Elmhurst, Jaywalkers get paid (though not much). Traffic is unaffected, however, and nobody gets hurt.

Elmhurst’s “Jaywalkers” are the enthusiastic student tour guides that the admission office employs to lead prospective first-year and transfer students around the College Mall and through the Frick Center, the library, the athletic facilities and the residence halls. The group’s name is a play on the varsity teams’ moniker, the Bluejays. Jaywalkers are also known as “Student Ambassadors,” and their work is no walk in the park. Among other things, they need to learn to walk backwards without bumping into lampposts, trees, professors, fellow students or some combination thereof. They also need to master minute details about campus facilities and architecture, learn the history of the College since 1871, and prepare to answer arcane or otherwise curveball questions from prospective students and their parents.

A visitor once asked Jaywalker Tyler Wernecke, a sophomore from Decatur, Illinois, if playing Pokémon was a college requirement, since the potential applicant had noticed several Elmhurst students playing it. (Answer: no.)

Like Pokémon, the campus tour is not a requirement, but it also is not a game. It is a vital, often decisive, hands-on way for prospective students to connect with the College and see if it’s a fit for them. The tour frequently turns 
a prospect with a casual interest in Elmhurst into an applicant, and ultimately into an engaged student and loyal alumnus. For applicants who already are leaning Elmhurst’s way, a tour often seals the deal.

According to a survey of prospective students by the admission office, among the wide variety of communications tactics that the office employs, campus tours rank second in terms of influencing prospects to become applicants. (The College web site ranks first.) And unlike a print or electronic publication, a tour, while only sometimes individual, is always highly personal.

 “It’s about fit,” says Rolando Chacón, the admission counselor who oversees the Jaywalkers. “If prospective students take a tour, feel like they fit in with the campus environment and believe they can see themselves here, they are much more likely to attend.”

Student ambassadors become adept at walking backwards during tours so they can maintain eye contact and fluid conversations. “It’s quite tricky,” says Julie Provenza, a senior from Mount Prospect. During one backwards walk through the cafeteria, she bumped a set of garbage cans, causing another student to miss a bin and spill her tray all over the floor. Not a great way to say “Welcome to Elmhurst!” While giving a tour in the rain, Allyson Vertigan, a junior from upstate New York, lost her sandals and fell on the sidewalk. The ambassadors must also learn the art of the graceful recovery.  “I just laugh it off and make a joke about how walking backwards isn’t on my résumé,” says Vertigan.

Jaywalkers not only walk the walk, they talk the talk. This requires them to memorize a mountain of information, found in the Jaywalkers Tour Manual, about campus highlights, academic departments and extracurricular activities. The full-day training session—Jaywalking 101—includes team-building activities, an intercultural presentation, and guest speakers from various departments and offices.

To perfect their presentation, new Jaywalkers spend time shadowing more experienced guides. “It took a while, but it’s just like practicing an instrument,” says Richard Palys, a junior from Crystal Lake, who should know; he’s majoring in jazz studies and music composition. For her first six tours, Genesis Jelkes, a senior from Chicago, secretly kept the Jaywalkers handbook in her back pocket. She also practiced by giving mini-tours to friends while walking to class, interjecting, “Did you know…?” as they passed some campus landmark.

Jaywalkers work in pairs. At least one guide lives in a residence hall, so future students can visit the room and glimpse campus living. During a morning huddle before a recent tour they did together, Provenza and Vertigan bantered about the dubious state of each of their rooms and debated which was the least offensive to show the prospect, all within earshot of wannabe Bluejay Zach Blaisdell and his parents, who couldn’t help but laugh.

Most Jaywalkers try to inject humor into their tours. Many current students, Vertigan says, fondly recall the corny jokes of their long-ago tour guides. Wernecke has a routine in place when the tour arrives at the campus heating and cooling plant, which melts the snow and ice on the sidewalk and looks a little space age.  “When we get to it, I say, this is our launching pad and on average we launch five to seven rockets a year,” Wernecke says. “I get most people on the tour to believe me. I’m pretty good with the delivery.”

Overall, though, Jaywalkers must take their job seriously. Prospective students are nothing if not earnest; they really want to know the ins and outs of college life. Vertigan says her favorite spot on the tour is the Frick Center, where she shows off the various ways Elmhurst students can get involved beyond the classroom: service groups, student government, fraternities, sororities, the newspaper, the radio station, athletic teams, music ensembles, dozens of clubs and organizations.

Wernecke’s favorite part of the tour takes place in a classroom, where he talks about the College’s academic rewards and challenges. “I love to talk about my experiences with the faculty.” He tells each newcomer, “They’re always willing to help you.” The most frequent question he gets: “Are classes hard?” (Answer: “definitely.”)

Beyond tours, the job requires Student Ambassadors to host prospective students overnight in the residence halls and to assist in various admission programs, including panels, presentations and, eventually, student registration. Any student in good academic standing after at least a term at Elmhurst can apply to be an ambassador, but not everyone makes the cut. Chacón selects the final group of 25 Jaywalkers. “The perfect candidate speaks loudly, has an outgoing personality, believes in the Elmhurst Experience,” and can articulate that belief not only loudly but with conviction, he says. “I tell them that they are walking billboards for our institution.”

Jaywalkers do their best to engage prospective students personally and find out what subjects and activities are of interest to them. Then they note the hundreds of academic courses and dozens of extracurricular activities that match up.

At the moment, Elmhurst is the top choice of prospect Zach Blaisdell. He hopes to major in computer game and entertainment technology. The campus tour serves Blaisdell more as a confirming than a deciding factor. Provenza and Vertigan mention several activities the quiet high school senior might want to consider, such as trying out for his own show on WRSE-FM, the College radio station.

 “Many students hide behind their curious, questioning parents and leave it all to them,” Jelkes says. “The way I handle those who aren’t so chatty is by going outside of the standard speech, by giving accounts of my own personal experience. Finding a subject that will finally prompt a question from a quiet student is gratifying.” Wernecke asks a lot of open-ended questions. “I always try to make the members of the group feel like they already are a part of Elmhurst. No matter who you are, I tell them, you will fit in here.”

Most Jaywalkers lead four or five tours a week. Between them, Provenza and Vertigan also participate in 14 campus organizations. Each has studied abroad several times. They share these experiences at the end of their tour with Blaisdell, which, like all tours, ends in a classroom. They finish by writing some Elmhurst statistics on the blackboard: faculty to student ratio (13 to 1); average class size (18 students), number of courses taught by a graduate student or teaching assistant (0).

For Elmhurst’s Jaywalkers, the compensation is more than monetary. “Being a Jaywalker reminds me of everything I love about Elmhurst,” says Vertigan. “The best result I’ve gotten from a tour is seeing a student select Elmhurst College.”

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