As COVID-19 vaccination rates have increased, federal, state and local restrictions on gatherings and events have eased. For the University of Oregon, that means that prospective students can once again visit campus for guided tours after a 15-month interruption.
On a recent afternoon, five soon-to-be high school seniors gathered with family members in front of Oregon Hall. Slightly overcast skies provided a reprieve from the record-setting heat wave of previous days.
After sharing their names, home states — Oregon, Arizona, California and Florida — and academic interests, the students got an overview of the application and admission process from an admissions counselor, including information on scholarships and other financial aid.
With information packets for reference, the group set off on its 90-minute exploration of the UO campus.
Getting to know the UO
Leading the tour was Student Orientation Programs Ambassador Erika Kline, class of 2022, from Irvine, California. Kline is majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing.
Throughout winter term, student ambassadors had weekly trainings to learn about the UO’s academic programs, student services and student life. They got to know campus buildings and each other, then shared their knowledge with prospective students in Zoom meetings until COVID-19 restrictions were reduced and student-led tours could return.
“We resumed campus visits in mid-June with fairly small tours, reducing our capacity to around 10 visitors,” said Micah Howe, assistant director for student orientation visit programs. “Since June 30 we’ve been able to be back at 100 percent of our pre-pandemic levels, capping our tours at about 25 people per ambassador.”
Visit sizes are limited so ambassadors can connect with every student on their tours.
“My favorite part is meeting so many people every day from across the United States and even the world,” Kline said. “I get to talk about my own experience, but I also get to learn from them, too. I love meeting new people and talking with everybody, so this job is amazing for that.”
Student Orientation Programs has about 15 ambassadors on the roster this summer, Howe said, but that number will increase substantially come fall. A full team of 65 students will be trained in mid-September, in time for Week of Welcome, fall term tours and visit events.
The visitors initially stayed with their own families, but as the tour progressed parents began chatting with each other, and conversations could be heard as the high schoolers discussed the excitement of moving to a new place for college.
Some families said they were visiting multiple colleges, and not all campuses offered the same level of access as the UO.
“The opportunity for a student-guided tour is amazing,” said UO alumna Amber Coe, a 1990 Asian studies graduate, visiting from Tualatin with her daughter Zoe Taaffe. “We have been waiting for tours to start.”
Coe said that she knows many families that have been doing either virtual or self-guided tours. She appreciated the virtual offerings, and the reasons for them, but said that it was important to experience campus in person. Her family has been coming to Eugene for Duck games, but she said they haven’t spent a lot of time around the academic buildings.
“It’s nice to see all the upgrades and changes. It’s great to be back and have someone walk us through campus,” Coe said.
Lessons learned during the pandemic
As excited as everyone is to be back on campus tours, positive aspects of last year’s virtual visits have not gone unnoticed.
“We found that having a virtual component gives us a couple of unique benefits that we hadn’t considered much before the pandemic,” Howe said.
One-on-one virtual appointments provide scheduling flexibility as well as a high level of personalization, Howe said. For example, a prospective student can pick a time that works best for them and be matched with an ambassador who is studying the same academic interest area.
“There is also an access component for families who don’t have the time or resources to travel to Eugene, particularly those from out of state or international students,” she said.
Webinars and video tours give students enough information to get them excited about becoming a Duck, Howe said, which can prompt them to visit campus in person.
“Some families want to utilize all of the tools, virtual and face to face, to learn about the University of Oregon.” Howe said. “In terms of the college search process, I don’t think the virtual realm is going away anytime soon.”
The looping route took visitors through four buildings after donning face coverings: the Lillis Business Complex, the Erb Memorial Union, the Student Recreation Center, and Justice Bean Residence Hall. Outside of Lillis, family photos were snapped in front of the “O.” The last stop provided an opportunity to enter a typical room to learn how it can be furnished.
“One thing I always tell my tour groups is that asking questions is really important,” Kline said. “Going on your first tour and taking those steps is good for the students and the parents, allowing you to see what you do and don’t like in a school. I do think tours are very effective.”
Guided tours are currently available Monday-Friday, with several each day. Tours currently depart from Oregon Hall on the corner of East 13th Avenue and Agate Street. In mid-August a new welcome center is scheduled to open in the newly constructed DeNorval Unthank Jr. Hall and tours will depart from that location.
If visitors’ feedback is any indication, campus tours can play a role in a student choosing to attend the UO.
“When I walk around the beautiful campus, I want it to be my home for the next four years,” said Taaffe, who will be a senior this fall at Tualatin High School and is considering human physiology for a major.
While final decisions on a college are still to be made, the tour made a positive impression.
“You feel like you belong here, even if you don’t live here yet,” Taaffe said. “You feel like a Duck.”
—By Colleen Schlonga, Student Services and Enrollment Management