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Guide to Life

Sure, the tour program offers a vital first glimpse of the campus to thousands of visitors each year. And turns out it’s an enticing glimpse, with a hugely positive impact on families weighing their college options. But what’s in it for the guides? Step this way to find out the many ways the program serves as a launching pad.

It is the last Friday in March and the stubborn New England winter of 2014 will not let go. Ominous clouds hang over the Memorial Union as the last tour group of the day prepares to leave the building and venture out for a 90-minute stroll across campus, with a few indoor stops along the way.

Enter Jessi Minneci ’16, sporting an official tour guide jacket and bubbling with enthusiasm for all things URI. “Good afternoon and welcome to the University of Rhode Island,” Minneci cheerfully intones. “I’m Jessi, I’m a sophomore double major in journalism and marine affairs, and I can’t wait to take you on a tour!”

Tour guides show off campus this spring.

Minneci, one of 102 tour guides, quickly learns from the high school seniors on the 2 p.m. tour that all have been accepted to the University for the fall of 2014. Most are accompanied by parents. One family pushes a stroller; their accepted student is speaking with cross-country coaches at the athletic complex and they decided to tour campus on their own. The group includes visitors from Pennsylvania, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Minneci’s home state of New Jersey. She immediately connects the dots for the New Jersey tour participants; they have several family friends in common.

Connecting the dots is one of Minneci’s strengths as a tour guide. She keeps up the patter, never missing a beat, even as she walks backwards, sharing the story of when she actually fell—walking forward—on one of her tours. “I have definitely gotten the hang of walking backwards, but clearly I still need to work on my forward walking skills!” When Minneci confides that she wants to be the next Katie Couric, you believe she has a good shot at making her dream come true.

Despite having memorized a 50-page manual during her tour guide training, Minneci never sounds rehearsed. A steady drizzle begins as she expertly guides the group past the Quad (“When the weather clears, I will definitely be getting my tan on!”) and details the many activities that take place there: the weekly farmers market, wood-grilled pizzas, visits by therapy dogs during exam periods, and one of her favorite stunts, students “tightroping” between trees. She also points out that the Quad has wifi, and even features 24/7 webcams, “in case you’d like to say hi to mom and dad at home.” She has captured the imaginations of her tour participants. No one seems to mind the rain, the wind, or the cold.

Talking up academic excellence is part of Minneci’s job. She deftly transitions from tightroping to technology, leading the group into Ballentine Hall, home to the College of Business Administration, and pointing out the Bruce S. Sherman Trading Room, which provides students with news and stocks coverage so they can analyze financial information as it relates to world and national events. She provides details about a number of popular and competitive URI majors as she moves the group through the academic section of the tour, visiting the impressive new pharmacy building, where she encourages participants to peek at a simulated “robot baby,” and points out the medicinal garden, naming many of the plants as she goes.

Smoothly pivoting, Minneci turns to her next subject, residential life. She is clearly proud of the new Anna Fascitelli Fitness and Wellness Center and its state-of-the-art machinery. A swing by Hope Commons gives her a chance to reassure families that “it’s impossible to get tired of the food here—the variety is endless.” And in Browning Hall, she invites the group to be seated as she thoughtfully explains the housing and dining systems.

By the time the tour winds its way back to the Union, students and parents alike are somewhat bedraggled by rain and wind, but thanks to Minneci’s infectious high spirits and pride in URI, the weather hasn’t been a factor. She’s wowed the group from start to finish. And it won’t end there. “Every student who comes on tour fills out a prospective student information sheet including home address and intended major,” shares Minneci. “Tour guides follow up with each participant by sending customized postcards. I like to personalize my cards by drawing pictures that reflect their interests, like a microscope for a student interested in biology.”

This kind of personal attention makes a difference in yield, says Dean of Admission Cynthia Bonn M.S. ’94, (full disclosure: Bonn led tours as an undergraduate at Boston University). “National research in the field shows that the number one influencer in both the decision to apply and to attend a particular college or university is the campus tour.” Campus Tour Director Erin West Earle ’04, M.S. ’09, who heads up the program from September through May (colleagues Beth Tikoian and Darcy Flaherty ’05, M.S. ’13 handle the summer tours), adds, “We ask every visitor to complete an evaluation. Nearly 88 percent say the tour increased their likelihood of applying or attending.” URI tour guides also receive high marks on the qualitative section of the evaluation, says Earle. “We hear comments like, ‘Tour guide was very intelligent and helpful;’ ‘Great ambassador, very personable and knowledgeable;’ ‘ She was awesome! Clear, funny, entertaining;’ and ‘Fantastic tour! Got a great feel for the campus, student life, and academics. Great guide.’”

The guides are good at their jobs in part because of a focus on continuous training. “The philosophy of the tour guide program is that there is always more we can learn about the University and we can always make the tours better,” says Earle, who has been involved with the program for 11 years, including as an undergraduate tour guide. In addition to learning the detailed manual and prescribed tour route inside and out, training includes workshops in public speaking, the art of storytelling, facts and figures about URI, and how to effectively answer questions. Diversity and Safe-Zone trainings are also included, as are visits from guest speakers around the University. “We even give quizzes to be sure the students keep current with their information.”

The program also provides tremendous leadership opportunities for students. A student executive board runs the show, with two head program coordinators and five other board members dividing responsibilities for recruiting, group tours, information sessions, and managing 102 guides. Paul Knott ’14 serves as co-head coordinator this year with Kathryn Paulhardt ’14. Knott, the 2014 student commencement speaker, has risen through the tour guide ranks since his freshman year and worked all three of his URI summers as a full-time guide. “The leadership roles I have filled through the tour guide program have given me potential, perspective and passion for working in higher education,” says Knott, who hopes to attend a graduate program in higher education counseling. Knott also says the tour guides are a close-knit group. Minneci concurs: “I can always count on one of the team members to be my study buddy in the library, to grab a bite to eat with me, or to be a shoulder to cry on. And as tour guides, we work with other student groups around campus, so I am always being exposed to new activities and new areas for involvement—and making new friends.”

As it turns out, the bonds formed while tour guides are undergraduates continue into their alumni-hood. Just ask Erik DeAngelis, Leslie Miller Whitlock, and Mary Earle Larsen (no relation to Erin West Earle).

Erik DeAngelis ’04, M.S. ’09, from Warwick, R.I., says, “I met my best friends in college through tour guiding. The program is where I found my niche at URI.” Like Earle, it is also where he found his professional calling; today he works at Brown University as an assistant director of admission. “Being a tour guide changed my trajectory. It was the catalyst for everything I did following URI.” DeAngelis confesses that as a first semester senior, he experienced some self-doubt and indecision about graduate school. “And then, at the end of a tour, an accepted student told me that the experiences I had shared during the tour sealed the deal and he would be attending URI. A light bulb went on for me. This was a job that made an impact. I decided then and there this was what I wanted to do, and enrolled in URI’s College Student Personnel graduate program.”

Another close friend and fellow tour guide alumna is Leslie Miller Whitlock ’06, an air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, where she lives with her husband, Jason, who is currently studying sociology at URI and expects to graduate in December 2014. Whitlock, who grew up in Newport, was drawn to the tour guide program because, she says, “I was a classic case of not wanting to stay in Rhode Island, not wanting to attend URI. Once I arrived, however, I realized that it was a great place and a perfect fit for me. I wanted to help other students who were unsure about the University to see what I saw.” Whitlock believes her experience as a tour guide enabled her to overcome shyness and become a confident public speaker. This serves her well in her work as an air traffic controller, where “my voice is everything. How I project, my speech pattern and my cadence—all of this contributes to my message. And if I don’t use my voice correctly, my message is not received correctly.” Whitlock prides herself on remaining calm in a crisis, another trait strengthened during her stint as a guide.

Earle points out that the best tour guides are not necessarily extroverts. “Being outgoing and enthusiastic doesn’t hurt, but some of our best guides have been self-described introverts who happened to be fantastic at translating their experiences to stories students and families enjoyed.”

Above, Mary Earle Larsen ’04 hosting The Rhode Show last year.

And then there are the tour guide naturals, like Mary Earle Larsen ’04, who calls herself a “performer by nature” and credits the tour guide program with improving her performance skills at every level, from learning lines to speaking clearly and concisely. Larsen, like Whitlock and DeAngelis, who is her best friend, is a native Rhode Islander. After a semester at URI she began to see the University—and the state—in a new light, and wanted to show them off to prospective students. Larsen says being a tour guide also “exposed me to students I would not have met otherwise. Even though I was an orientation leader and an RA, because of my area of study I was in Fine Arts most of the time, so meeting fellow tour guides opened up my world and really enhanced my URI experience, right down to learning what the best dishes were at different dining halls!” She also notes, “thanks to being a tour guide, interacting with a wide range of other students, I became a seasoned team player, which is a critical skill in today’s workplace.” A musician who plays more than 20 instruments including the baritone saxophone, she has taught at Providence Country Day School and the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Music School. Her one-year-old son, Rhys, is frequently the subject of Larsen’s blog, which she started while hosting The Rhode Show last year. Her current gig is serving as executive coordinator for Verdi Productions, a local film production company currently preparing to shoot a film with director Martin Scorsese.

The limelight is not what Ross Kauffman ’89 was seeking during his undergraduate years. A business major from Mahopac, N.Y., who took “at most” one film course, Kauffman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with an Oscar to his credit for his first full-length documentary, Born Into Brothels. The soon-to-be released E-Team, for which he traveled to Syria and Libya, earned a Sundance Film Festival prize for best cinematography. The film follows four members of the Emergencies Team—or E-Team—the boots-on-the-ground division of a respected, international human rights group, which gathers crucial evidence to determine if further investigation is warranted into human rights abuses around the world. Members of the team not only investigate, but also document and draw attention to these abuses.

Kauffman says his work as a documentarian was a natural outgrowth of his stint as a tour guide, which he describes as “an integral and fascinating part” of his undergraduate experience. Kauffman feels he benefited greatly from exposure to different types of people on the tours. “Talking to new people, getting to know them, creating a space for them to feel comfortable—all of this was excellent preparation for the work I do now, which is basically getting people to tell me their stories.” Kauffman also says he was shy in high school. “At URI, I came out of my shell, and tour guiding was a vehicle for that. Standing up in front of a group of total strangers turned out to be a lot of fun.”

Dean of Admission Bonn notes that tour guides gain a distinct advantage in preparing for the workplace. “There are few on-campus jobs that allow students to overcome any fear they may have about presenting to groups, and to practice and hone their public speaking skills,” she says. “For so many jobs, succinct and clear public speaking is seen as an extremely valuable skill.”

A tour guide who can’t seem to get away from URI is Chris Barrett ’08, who grew up less than a mile from campus. Barrett, a political science and journalism major who has reported for the Block Island Times and Providence Business News, directs communication for the College of Engineering (see his story on two of the college’s cybersecurity experts on page 22) and manages a federal grant for Provost Donald H. DeHayes. His brother is a URI freshman and his mother is director of budget and financial planning. Add to that his double legacy status and it is no wonder that Barrett was an ace tour guide for two years (as editor of the Good Five Cent Cigar his senior year, he became ineligible to continue guiding). Barrett fondly remembers freshmen greeting him with “You were my tour guide!” Like Larsen and DeAngelis, he credits the program with shaping his career. “As a tour guide, you have to tell a compelling story. As a writer, of course, storytelling is my stock in trade.” And although he graduated six years ago, Barrett still gives the occasional tour. “If I see a family looking lost, wandering campus clutching a map, I am happy to step in and show them around,” he says.

That generosity of spirit and desire to be of service is typical of tour guides through the decades. Earle reflects on what happened at this year’s first accepted-students day, when two thousand visitors descended on the University. “The rain was so heavy that as I drove to campus I didn’t know what to expect. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only did all the guides show up early, they were vying to be first to go out on tour.” Despite the flooded campus, despite having to improvise leading bus tours rather than walking tours, the guides were unfazed. “I am so impressed with their love of this University,” says Earle. “Their willingness to show our beautiful campus no matter what the weather, exemplifies their dedication and commitment to URI.”

Kauffman muses further on the tour guide mystique. “I really enjoyed the people and they enjoyed me. The tour guide is as much a symbol for what URI is as is the tour itself. If the tour guide is interested in the tour participants, that is a great reflection on the institution, showing that as a community, URI cares about people and embraces their stories.”

—Melanie Coon

What’s on tour guide Jessi Minneci’s summer reading list? Check out our summer reading feature to find out!

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