By Amelia Leaphart
After months of students and faculty sacrificing in-person classes, family visits, and trips off-campus in order to “protect the bubble,” the Office of Admissions resumed inviting prospective high school seniors to visit campus.
The University held its first in-person tour October 12, after a cabinet meeting decided the matter on September 28. Before this shift in the admissions process amid the pandemic, Arcadians conducted virtual tours only. The Office of Admissions still utilizes virtual tours alongside in-person tours.
Modifications to tours include full masking and distancing; visitors are not allowed into any building except All Saints’ Chapel, students can only bring one guest, and guests must fill out a COVID survey before the tour commences. Tours are limited to high-school seniors, and tour groups are restricted to nine people.
According to Lee Ann Backlund, dean of admissions and financial aid, discussions about on-campus tours began when the campus closed in March 2020. She cites how the first interaction 40 percent of current first year students had with the University was an on-campus tour.
“[Tours] are a big part of how students see themselves here and if they’re going to apply and enroll,” Backlund said.
Taylor Baird, senior assistant director of admissions, said different committees formed within their office to evaluate how to engage prospective students. Baird is on the campus-visit committee, where they discussed models of tours since the campus went remote in March.
“I think we definitely hear the concern from the community, and I’m sure it’s frustrating for students. But we want you to have peers and classmates here in the class of 2025. We say that genuinely. Students have been making sacrifices and hard decisions, but it’s important to bring that class in,” Baird said.
After the cabinet finalized resuming in-person tours, “We needed about a week to get our ducks in a row,” Backlund said. “We needed to see if we had enough Arcadian students who were comfortable on in-person tours.”
Arcadians were allowed to opt in or out of tours.
Grace Barlet (C’23) became an Arcadian the second semester of her freshman year. She decided to opt in for in-person tours when she received an email over the summer asking about her comfortability giving tours.
“I didn’t live in a hot-spot area, so I didn’t have to get used to not seeing or talking to people, or being very strict. I wasn’t scared for my own well-being, and I felt that I could lead other people through campus,” Barlet said.
Barlet said she struggled with technical difficulties during virtual tours, and there were moments she had to pause the tour to receive service. She has only given one in-person tour, and she said “it went fine. I had three parents, and we all stayed spread out. They were really good about respecting each other’s distance as well as mine.”
Supplemental tour experiences such as a lunch with a student or sitting in on a class have been cut from the schedule. Barlet said tours last roughly 45 minutes to one hour.
“I feel like [the families] were mostly happy to be here at all,” Barlet said.
Even one family told Barlet they were grateful for virtual tours, as many other campuses are only having prospective students look at pictures on their website.
Backlund said she thinks tours have “been going great. Monday and Friday are our busiest days, as people are arriving Sunday night. I think we’ll pick up, as many high school’s still have their fall break.”
On one tour, a visitor brought two guests instead of one, and Backlund had to turn away one of them. On another tour, only six families came, so two parents were allowed on the tour.
“We’re trying to be very aware of how many people we’re sending out with each tour guide,” Backlund said.
Baird trusts Arcadians’ honesty about their comfortability with the tours, “and I’ve heard good feedback. Again, that’s all coming from Arcadians who wanted to give tours,” she said.
While Baird said many Arcadians enjoy virtual tours, they miss witnessing visitors’ body language and reactions.
Backlund anticipates keeping virtual tours even when COVID restrictions loosen, as they are more accessible and an introduction to the school without committing to making a trip.
Baird highlights how many of Sewanee’s peer institutions were already conducting in-person tours, and “we were late to the game,” she said.
During one of her weekly meetings with the deans of admissions with the Associated Colleges of the South, Backlund realized that Sewanee was one of three schools that were not conducting in-person tours out of 17 schools. However, Sewanee remains a minority by having students on-campus and having tours.
“Sewanee is a specific community,” Baird said, “It’s one where we hope students opt into the experience. Most students who enroll have physically been on campus. We think it’s such a turning point for students in the recruitment process, especially considering Sewanee doesn’t have a city behind it’s brand.”
On tours, Baird said students witness the academic and social environment on campus that acts as the selling point for the University.
Backlund noted how she is “in the high-risk age-group, so I don’t want to be exposed. But we also want to make sure that our students are not exposed or on-campus. We’re making sure we’re doing all we can to protect this bubble, while giving seniors and their parents or guardian a chance to see this place.”
Baird anticipates when students leave November 20, they will see an increase in tours as high schools are also on Thanksgiving break. Counselors will be leading tours during the extended winter break.
On days of inclement weather, especially as it turns in November, instead of waiting on Fulford’s front porch, families will be spaced out inside Fulford hall.
In response to negative reactions from different facets of the community, Backlund said, “This may sound cold, but part of this is the price of doing business. A campus visit is so important to bring in a class. That’s why we’re limiting the number and limiting it to seniors.”
Backlund also noted that the university public health officials have approved of their plan.
“I know it’s hard to understand that we’re bringing in people to come to campus when we’ve been so adamant about protecting the bubble,” Barlet said. “For me, I’m hoping this is a trial run. If we can bring in random people from all over the country to come to campus and break the bubble, then that means we can use this to see if there are any outbreaks, maybe we can have more freedoms next semester.”
Baird highlighted how “we couldn’t lock the gates, families were still driving through. I think they were behaving themselves and masking. If a family from Atlanta wanted to drive up and walk around, there was little to stop that. Now, we have a record of their visit.”