Open houses are different in a pandemic.

Every year, my college does an open house in the fall and another in the spring. The one in fall of 2020 was entirely virtual, for obvious reasons. But we’re expecting to be back on campus in much greater numbers this fall, so a partially in-person open house seemed more consistent with that message.

That said, the format had to adapt to current realities. Instead of a huge crowd showing up at one time in the arena and seeing presentations before scattering around campus, the crowd was divided into three different starting times. Folding chairs in the arena were spaced far apart. For the campus tour, the number of employees answering questions in person was drastically reduced, but faculty in various departments have set aside time for open Zoom sessions with interested students in the coming week.

Consistent with my usual practice, I went undercover as “middle-aged suburban dad,” at which I’m alarmingly convincing. The staff recognize me, of course, but I like to tag along with a tour group and get a visitor’s-eye view of the experience. It also gives me a chance to see what resonates with people. Field research, or what more cynical types call “eavesdropping,” was somewhat attenuated by the combination of social distancing and masks. On the bright side, one professor who was working guide duty mentioned that mask wearing has helped with her allergies, since masks block pollen. I hadn’t thought of that, but it made sense. Take silver linings where you find them.

Still, even with suboptimal acoustics, some responses were clear.

The tour group moved from stop to stop. Each stop was staffed by a dean or director, who would give a two- to five-minute overview of a particular area, along with contact information and dates/times for open Zoom sessions with faculty next week. The idea was that, say, the dean of STEM would introduce the biology department, and students with an interest in biology would be given the details for how to have a follow-up discussion next week with faculty from the biology department. That way the tour could be brief, but students with interest in specific programs would be able to connect subsequently with professors from those programs. It kept the number of people on campus at one time much smaller and ensured that faculty time will be well spent. There’s just no substitute for faculty-student conversation in individual programs.

I noticed a palpable ripple of excitement in the tour group when one presenter mentioned the program we have that’s targeted to students who are undecided. Several students exchanged meaningful glances with their parents when that came up, and I noticed that the contact cards for that session were hot items. They seemed surprised, and relieved, that we acknowledged that many students just don’t know what they want. They responded with visible enthusiasm at being seen.

That was encouraging.

As we walked through the visual arts building, we passed a lactation room that was labeled as such. I saw one woman point it out to her companion and say something to the effect of “that’s a good sign.” The tour guide didn’t mention it, and I don’t think that part of the route was even planned, but it made an impression. Even for people without a personal use for one, it sends a signal. In retrospect, I wished we had passed some of the single-stall bathrooms, too. Most people wouldn’t notice, but those for whom it matters would.

With each open house, I come away with notes. This time I noticed that when various folks mentioned the transfer agreements we have, nobody mentioned the HBCUs on the list. We should make a point of mentioning those. And microphones for tour guides are always a good idea.

With smaller groups and masks, the open house didn’t have the same rush-hour feel that it usually does, but I was glad we were able to do one at all. Prospective students face the prospect of a physical campus in the fall; no reason not to see it now.



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