Walking backward: A day in the life of a tour guide

Ominously dark clouds swirled in the sky. A gentle drizzle that had kept up for several hours paused, as if holding its breath, before releasing another sweeping spray of rain. It wasn’t the most ideal weather for a campus tour.

Despite the dreary weather, a cluster of about 20 high school students trailed in front of Paige Romer ’12, who was calmly enumerating the five founding tenets of Stanford.

“We have 8,100 acres of land here,” Romer said, earning a multitude of raised eyebrows and an impressed whistle from the prospective students. “To put it in perspective of just how big our campus is, we can fit 26 Disneylands right here on campus.”

While passing through the Main Quad, Romer skillfully dodged a passing biker, maintaining her backward gait without missing a step.

It was just a typical day for Romer, one of the many Stanford student tour guides.

Being a tour guide is not an easy job, but students find it one of the most rewarding. That is, if you make the cut.

“It’s pretty hard to get in,” Romer said. “This year, I think we received almost 200 applications, and only about 30 people were accepted.”

The tour guide selection process is a lengthy one. First, students are expected to complete a very personal, written application. Questions are aimed to elicit more personal information from the potential guides, and some are so unusual that they often catch applicants off-guard.

“They ask really fun questions,” said Caleb Joseph ’12, a current tour guide. “[One of] last year’s questions was to draw a type of T-shirt that we should make for the tour guides. They ask questions to tease out your personality.”

Following the written application process, only a certain percentage of applicants progress to the next stage: the group interview. Byron Vosburg ’09, a student manager for the Stanford student tour guides, refused to reveal how many applicants were accepted into the next round, saying it varied from year to year.

Prospective tour guides are placed in groups of eight to 10, where they are all interviewed by a tour guide manager and several current tour guides. According to current tour guides, the group setting was a chance for the selection committee to assess the applicant’s ability to present well and respond quickly to various scenarios.

“Just like there is no set Stanford student, there is no set successful tour guide applicant,” Vosburg said. “What we’re looking for are people with effective communication skills.”

The last step of the application process is the private interview, where applicants’ memories are put to the test as they present a prepared talk on one of Stanford’s landmarks and recite Stanford trivia. However, there is more to being a tour guide than just memorizing the history of the school’s founding.

“It’s more about being able to recover from forgetting things,” Joseph explained. “If you’ve forgotten everything you’ve memorized, can you stay in control? It’s about wielding that information and knowing what to do when you forget it. If you have the right kind of personality for this, the facts aren’t that important.”

If an applicant makes it through the selection process, he or she is then deemed a Stanford tour guide. But they are not home free yet.

They must then undergo a rigorous training program. According to Joseph, two of the most critical skills are the ability to “feel out the crowd,” or assess the audience’s personality, and to field awkward questions.

Joseph was no stranger to being asked awkward questions, pointing to the time a parent asked him about student sex life.

In addition to gracefully handling persistent parents and speaking clearly, another important skill learned by all tour guides is the ability to walk backwards.

“Tourists are always impressed by the walking backwards trick,” Joseph said. “It’s really funny but for some reason they love it. Every time I hop upstairs backwards, they all gasp a little bit and then they applaud when I reach the top.”

Walking tour groups vary greatly in size, ranging from one person to a record-breaking party of 90 people. The largest tourist groups usually come in the summer, when the highest number of prospective students and tourists visit campus. Tour guides are equipped with megaphones for such occasions.

There are two kinds of walking tours conducted. One tour is geared toward tourists and features a general overview of the Stanford campus as well as a generous helping of Stanford trivia. Another tour is tailored to prospective students and their parents, supplemented with information on the application process.

With so much pressure riding on their shoulders in these situations, current guides realize that they have to perform well.

“We are their sole link, especially for tourists,” Joseph said. “We are the only information that they’re going to get while they’re here. What’s scary is if I sound stupid during my tour, if I stutter, I may as well be the only Stanford student that these people speak to in their entire lives.”

It seems that that pressure has yielded positive results so far. Priya Khangura, a junior at the University of Michigan, had already made her college choice, but nevertheless enjoyed the Stanford tour.

“It highlighted the important aspects of this school,” she said. “It’s pretty comparable to other campus tours, but I think I really like this campus.”

Bert Dempsey was on tour with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was two years away from making the college try.

“This is actually our first college tour, but I thought it was very good,” he said. “The length was right—it wasn’t too long, and we got to learn a lot of things about this campus.”

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