Guiding Forces: Changing Tours on Campus

April 17, 2016

Red Square

Before arriving at Georgetown in September 2014, David Patou (COL ‘18) and Alex Mitchell (COL ‘18) noticed something missing from the college touring process. As a result, they created Campus Sherpa, a tour guide agency that pays its guides and works to match high school students to college students with similar interests.

The idea for this service really came early in our college careers, so we were fresh out of the experience ourselves,” said Patou.At schools where I had a family friend, I would try to meet with that person, to say, ‘Why did you choose so and so?’ Looking back on our touring process, we found that at times when we had that additional component, we just knew the school so much better.”

Campus Sherpa pays students to give a more personalized look at the university tailored to a particular student’s interests, which can fall into categories such as dorm life, specific majors, or activities on campus.

Sherpas, as the tour guides are called, are encouraged not to advertise the university, but to be very honest about their experiences. “[Sherpas] give a very honest and open view of what it’s like to go to the school,” said Patou. “We think that’s very important for high school students to hear, even if the outcome is, you know, ‘I’m not a good fit for this school, I should go to a different school.’”

“I was reliant on the info session and the official tour, which kind of give you a picture perfect [image]” said Patou, about his own experiences touring. He explained that Campus Sherpa focuses on showing incoming students different sides of the school that are not usually highlighted in standard tours.

Georgetown’s traditional tour guide service, Blue and Gray, differs from Campus Sherpa in several ways. “We always call ourselves complementary, but not substitutional, for Blue and Gray,” Patou said. “The existence of Campus Sherpa is not a critique of Blue and Gray; it’s not a criticism of them in any way. Blue and Gray does a great job.”

Blue and Gray’s guides are trained through a process that includes memorizing a 40-page manual, a mentorship program with experienced guides, and several tours where new guides are shadowed by their mentor. This learning process can take up to half a semester, varying with each tour guide.

Patou acknowledged that this rigorous training process provides Blue and Gray guides with important information. “The [guides] have to know the history of the school, and official statistics and numbers and things that your average student at Georgetown wouldn’t know,” he said. “So in that way, when someone goes on a Blue and Gray tour, they’re getting a lot of official but also important information that they’ll use in their application process.”

Heymann explained that the manual is updated every semester with adjustments to tours. Construction plays a major role in how tours are changed. Last semester, when the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation worked to rename Mulledy and McSherry Halls, one of their demands was adjusting the tours to highlight Georgetown’s black history. The increased construction proved to be challenging to this attempt. “I think there were some difficulties in trying to incorporate these new pieces, just because the tour route has been changed so many times due to construction,” Heymann said. “I think that some of the intention of including this black history was lost in the shuffle of trying to reroute the tour route again and again.”

“The history of slavery on campus is not a positive part of the university, but it’s something that’s really honest,” Ari Goldstein (COL ‘18), a current Blue and Gray tour guide, said. “I think people really appreciate that. It’s something they’ll probably remember from tours, and it does highlight student activism and the receptive administration that wants to engage with the students.” However, as of right now, the official training manual does not contain any information about Georgetown’s black history or relationship with slavery.

This activity on campus had little effect on Campus Sherpa and the guides, as their approach is oriented more around high school students’ questions and preferences.  Unless the Sherpa is a part of the Working Group or the student specifically asks for more extensive information about activism on campus, the issue may not come up.  

Blue and Gray’s reaction to the creation of Campus Sherpa was hesitant at first, according to Patou. “We’re in a tricky industry, because it’s one that hasn’t really had much innovation,” he explained. “College tours have not updated on campuses … they’re very traditional in how they are, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that the industry is not necessarily ready for new things to come in.”

The former president of Blue and Gray, Jack Moore (SFS ‘16) spoke to the group’s reaction to Campus Sherpa. “Blue and Gray’s core mission is [centered around] service for the student body, regardless of background, of socioeconomic status … We just think that Blue and Gray’s mission of service, the underlying thesis of that, is that we don’t receive compensation from the visitors,” Moore said.

Blue and Gray recently instituted a clause to their contract prohibiting their guides from working for both Blue and Gray and Campus Sherpa. “We decided in September after a few conversations with Campus Sherpa and with our liaisons in the admissions office that we wanted to make sure that those stay in separate spheres. We just think that Blue and Gray’s mission of service, the underlying thesis of that, is that we don’t receive compensation from the visitors,” Moore said.

Blue and Gray prides itself on being a volunteer-run organization.  “There’s a huge pride within Blue and Gray about being volunteers and about not being paid for services, but I think that there is some controversy in not being paid as student employees”, said Allie Heymann (SFS ‘16), a former Blue and Gray guide. “It’s obviously a very competitive application process, and the notion of volunteering your time to do this is a point of pride.”

Patou expressed frustration with the policy. “People are always going to take the official tour,” he said. “I tell people to take the official tour, and half of your tour guides realize that. I was incredibly frustrated that Blue and Gray set up that barrier, and unfortunately it’s a barrier that still persists.”

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