Posted October 26, 2011

Temple tour guides drive admissions, local economy

Joseph V. Labolito / Temple University
Temple Owl Ambassador David Lopez leads a group of prospective students and their families along Polett Walk. Temple tour guides say that the energy of campus life that is evident at the intersection of Temple’s tree-lined walkways is one of Main Campus’s top selling points.

There are only 35 students who have what it takes to wear their uniform. They’ve survived a series of tests that weed out more than 90 percent of applicants. They’ve had months of training, and some juniors and seniors among them have seen action more than 150 times.

They’re Owl Ambassadors, Temple’s elite corps of tour guides, and they are the front line of the university’s admissions process. They’re also the vanguard in the effort to grow the region’s economy.

Anyone who has spent time at Temple has seen Owl Ambassadors in their cherry polo shirts and windbreakers as they lead prospective students and their families on 60-minute walking tours of Main Campus. But the twice-a-day tours that leave the Welcome Center on most days are only their most conspicuous duty. They also spearhead hundreds of student workers who assist Temple staff during all-day Fall Open House and Experience Temple events and staff Admissions’ front desk in Conwell Hall year-round.

“The Owl Ambassadors are Temple. When people visit campus and speak with tour guides or ask them questions at the front desk, the Owl Ambassadors represent all Temple students,” said Niki Mendrinos, associate director for campus visit programs and special events at Temple. “They make a huge impression, and it’s often visitors’ first impression.”

The volume is high — and so are the stakes. The number of admissions-related visitors to Temple has exploded in recent years. Last year, an all-time high of more than 38,000 prospective students and their entourages visited the university, a staggering 40 percent increase since 2006. Attendance at special events such as open houses has also reached unprecedented levels (see sidebar). The surge in visitors is happening at a time when the number of high school graduates is declining, making the competition among colleges to lure qualified applicants more intense than ever. So it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Temple’s future may depend in part on the Ambassadors’ ability to show off their school.

Rest easy, Temple, they’re good at it — really good. Maria McLean knows. The sophomore kinesiology major from Clinton, Md., says she wouldn’t be at Temple if she hadn’t gone on a campus tour led by an Owl Ambassador.

“Temple was one of my last choices, but a friend who went to my church went here, so I visited,” McLean said. “Adia — I can’t remember her last name — was my tour guide. Tour guides at other colleges gave me all the facts and the figures, but they didn’t communicate whether they were enjoying it. Adia shared her own personal experiences. Yes, Temple’s campus was gorgeous, but campus means nothing if you can’t get a feel for how student life is. After the tour, I got in the car and told my parents, ‘I’m going to Temple.’” 

Maria was so impressed that she decided to try to become an Owl Ambassador herself. She earned a spot and gave her first tour last year. Now she has returned the favor.

“I was walking on campus and this boy who was sitting on the steps of 1940 [residence hall] said, ‘Excuse me, miss, were you here last year giving tours?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘You’re the reason I’m here, and I love it here.’ I was so happy.”

To become an Owl Ambassador, applicants go through a series of rigorous trials, starting with an exercise in the Welcome Center called Meet the Owls. Candidates are divided into groups and asked to develop and perform a song or skit that captures their feelings about Temple. A few applicants from each group with the right combination of creativity, quick thinking, positivity, energy and teamwork are chosen by Owl Ambassador observers to advance to the next stage: a one-stop mock tour. Each candidate must research and give an oral presentation on a Temple landmark. Owl Ambassadors play the role of visitors, lobbing tough questions like hand grenades as they seek to weed out the fidgety and the inarticulate. In the end, only 10 candidates out of the 117 students who applied for the job this year made the final cut.

But their preparation doesn’t end there. Those who make the grade enter a period of rigorous training. Each new hire gets a thick binder full of facts to memorize and an Owl Ambassador mentor to follow. Only after a lengthy apprenticeship do rookie Owls get to fly solo.

Why put up with such a long, brutal process? Owl Ambassadors are well paid for student workers, to be sure, but no one on the current roster of 35 chose this job for the money. Abby Cohn, a senior communications major from Fleetwood, Pa., who has led 150 to 200 tours, says the job is a perfect way to prepare for almost any post-Temple career.

“Being an Owl Ambassador has so many benefits,” she said. “It has sharpened my communications skills and interpersonal relations. My ability to answer questions, convey information and analyze feedback has gotten stronger. This has been and probably will be the best job I’ve ever had.”

“It never gets old,” said Cohn’s classmate, Matt Wargo, a broadcast journalism major from Blandon, Pa., who estimates that he has led at least 100 to 150 tours. “It’s a new world every time you step out of the Welcome Center and start your tour. Sometimes you have 25 people from all over the country who have never been to Philadelphia and don’t know anything about Temple; sometimes you have 25 people who’ve already been to campus 10 times.”

No matter where they’re from, each prospective student that Owl Ambassadors convince to attend Temple is a win not only for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions but also for Philadelphia’s business community and the overall economic health of the region. Surveys suggest that most Temple students hope to stay to live and work in Philadelphia after graduating. People with college degrees earn more and spend more, which creates jobs and grows tax bases. That’s why the region’s college tour guides — especially top performers like Temple’s Owl Ambassadors — are valued by Deborah Diamond, president of Campus Philly, an organization that promotes economic development by attracting and retaining top college students and highly skilled young professionals.

Owl Ambassadors are “the face of Philadelphia,” Diamond said. “The tour guide experience has huge ripple effects. If those prospects are converted to students, then we know they’re part of $2.4 billion that gets spent annually in the Philadelphia region, not including tuition.”