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University Tours: Showing Buildings And Telling Stories To Harvard's Future

By Cara M. Familian

They come in droves.

Loud young women in long leather coats. A mother wrapped in a traditional Indian sari escorting her blue-jean-clad daughter. Tourists taking pictures. Parents leading their six-and 10-year-old children by the hand to show them what a presigious university is really like.

April is the busiest month of the year for University tour guides, as throngs of recently-admitted prefrosh join the usual tourist crowd to get a glimpse of the college where they might--or might not--decide to spend their next four years.

And while the tours go on all year long, the ones in April have a different edge to them. These are high school students who have already leapt over the first hurdle of admissions and are now choosing whether they really want to attend Harvard.

It is a buyer's market, and among the top salespeople are the undergraduate tour guides in the Crimson Key Society.

The aim of Crimson Key is to present Harvard: architecturally, academically, anecdotally and socially. Students and parents, domestic and international tourists alike, are given almost identical tours. During an hour-long stroll around campus, the guides point out historic buildings and statues, discuss admissions criteria and academic standards and highlight extracurricular organizations.

"Our primary responsibility is to dispell all myths about Harvard," says tour guide Allison Hecht '91. "We want to show that Harvard is a school of people who get educated. Any stories we tell show tradition, not elitism."

Typically, the tours are geared toward displaying the landmarks of Harvard. A tourist haven, the University draws crowds of business people and international visitors as frequently as interested students.

But cute stories and apocryphal anecdotes are also a mainstay of the tours. Harvard mythology is an integral part of what the tour guides dispense, and each stop along the way marks another landmark where someone famous did something fascinating.

First stop: Harvard Hall, where the tour guide tells the oftrepeated story of the student who stole a book from the collection of John Harvard's books housed in the building.

As the story goes, that night Harvard Hall burned down, and the student realized he held the last rare book in John Harvard's collection. When he strutted into the president's office the next morning, he was thanked for the book, but expelled for stealing it from the library.

There is a story for every stop: the statue of three lies, the stipulations on Widener library, the butter pads on the ceiling of the Harvard Union. Most of tales elicit "oohs" and "ahs"--and occasional chuckles--from the people on the tour.

Passers-by, most of them undergraduates, tend to smirk knowingly. But it's a bright spring day, and the combination of landmarks and legends seems to have the desired effect on the visitors. Touring students are often visibly awed, walking around the Yard with their mouths open or their heads cocked back.

In front of Emerson Hall, one guide tells a story--one of the tour's staples--about another spring day when Gertrude Stein was taking a philosophy exam in a class taught by William James. Legend has it that Stein wrote on the top of the exam that she couldn't bear to take a test on such a beautiful day, and that she was going outside. James gave her an A, saying that she truly understood the meaning of philosophy.

"Do you hear who went here?" a mother whispers loudly to her son, as she hear the story. He is hunched over, hands in pockets, seeming unimpressed. "Do you realize who your professors would be?"

The tour guide seems impressed as she tells the story, but afterwards she confesses that many of the big names she discusses on the tour are still just names to her.

"I didn't know who Williams James was before I went here," she says, after the group has dispersed.

"I still really don't know who he is. But he's got that big building over there." She points toward William James Hall, home of the Psychology Department.

Mixed in between the landmarks and the myths, the tour guides offer scattered impressions of undergraduate life: a job as an aerobics instructor, a Radcliffe externship, a roommate who heads a campus pro-life group.

"I try to describe how life will be if they decide to accept Harvard's offer of admission," says Hecht. "I say, 'This is how you would get to dinner and this is where you would eat." I make it active for them."

The stories provide amusing illustrations of life at Harvard, but can only go so far in capturing the nuances of student life. "I can only tell you what my experience here has been like," says Rachel Cashdollar '91, as she leads a group around the Yard. "I love Harvard, and so do all my roommates. But we're very different and we've found different parts to become involved in."

Consequently, prefrosh who are eager to learn what their experience at Harvard might be like often find the tour a limited resource, Cashdollar says. While student activities and classes and house life are mentioned, they are often squeezed in between descriptions of buildings and semi-historical anecdotes.

Hecht says her strategy is to offer some personal anecdotes to give students a perspective of Harvard life while not alienating them. Tour guides say they have to remove themselves from the day-to-day life and present Harvard in its entirety--which can often be difficult for them to accomplish.

"The most difficult part about leading tours," says Amy Heinman '90, "is stepping back from my own life and leading a group objectively. I may have had a horrible day and I may be temporarily really down on Harvard, but I can't let that show while I'm touring."

"I have to objectify Harvard and see it in different ways than I do in just my life," says Hecht.

One hour and fifteen minutes. In a span of time only slightly longer than the average undergraduate lecture, the visitors see a vast array of scattered and discreet images images of Harvard. For some students, a tour may be a pivotal factor in the final college decision. A sunny day or a friendly leader can make all the difference. Others may dismiss the tour as trivial and ephemeral and base their decision on more substantive factors.

But whatever criteria they base their final decison on, visiting students tend to come off the tour with a powerful sense of a Harvard mystique, a pervasive air about the University that makes it somehow different from other institutions. The fact that other schools tell nearly the same stories and show equally impressive buildings doesn't seem to matter as the tours reach their end; nearly everyone can sense the aura.

"I'm from North Carolina and my decision is between Harvard and Duke," one student explains to his guide, weighing the perceived virtues of each school.

"Duke is in my home state, which is great," he continues. "But this is Harvard."

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