STAR-spangled banter

“If you are a business major,” asked one parent, “can you do art too?”

“Absolutely,” responded the tour guide. “GW is flexible, and you can do any combination of majors and minors that you want.”

The guide mentioned the “big” theater and dance program that GW offers. Add to that the “thousands” of jobs available on campus and the Greek scene that “doesn’t really have crazy partying.” Suddenly, GW is irresistible.

It makes sense. Being a University tour guide is like being an image consultant. Sharpen the edges, apply the glaze, hide the wear and tear and produce a shining veneer. For GW’s Student Admissions Representatives, though, the cosmetic of choice is not just exaggeration. It’s also historical pop culture – like the time the firemen on G Street saved President William Taft when he fell in a bathtub.

I had never taken a school tour before, so I decided to try it out – three times. Sometimes I accompanied a single family, other times the group was much larger. Each time we stuck to a similar route, hitting new installations such as Duques and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center. I entered a world where study space wasn’t a problem and the music department was just as healthy as the political science department.

As a junior, the standard fare of academics, athletics and accommodations did not provide much new information. But there was something distinctive: the references to GW’s place in history.

Walking by the gym, I heard that students have seen Condoleezza Rice doing her grocery shopping in the Watergate complex. At the next corner, the guide told us that the Bush twins dined at Tonic and that President Harry Truman’s daughter worked at Quigley’s Pharmacy.

One parent, still unsure of life on an urban campus, asked if Foggy Bottom was safe at night. The answer? There was not too much to fear, given Secret Service patrols and the proximity of the White House. So why is the University Police Department asking for guns?

What guides left out was just as important as what they included. As tours made their first stop at Duques they breezed past Funger. The residence halls once open to visitors are now restricted due to “safety and security reasons.” Douglas Pineda, an assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, said GW discontinued the practice in response to concerns about students’ privacy.

Tour guides did not explicitly lie, at least in my experience. But the program encourages them to share their particular version of the GW experience, which can include just about anything. Plus, guides have considerable leeway to say what they wish. They are given no set script, just fact sheets with bullet points on each building.

But not everyone can become a guide – also known as a STAR. Candidates go through multiple interviews and training. Senior tour guides continuously observe the almost 100 active tour guides.

Asked about what makes a good STAR, Pineda said that they must be enthusiastic and willing to share their GW experience.

“If that includes a pop culture angle, then they’re going to bring it in,” he noted.

They did on the tours I took. Nearing the Marvin Center we learned that the bowling alley in the Hippodrome was one of three or four in Washington – the number varied depending on the guide.

From Pineda’s perspective, the tour guides’ personal stories, whether or not they exaggerate regular GW life, serve a clear purpose.

“When you convey the experience of seeing the presidential motorcade, when you convey what it’s like to live at GW,” he said. “For the prospective students, it’s like getting starstruck.”

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