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A Brain Busy Cataloging All Things Berkeley: True Confessions of a Cal Tour Guide

February 2, 2014
by Fiona Hannigan

I stared out at a mass of vibrating middle school students awaiting their campus tour. Before unleashing them on me, someone thought it would be a great idea to let them get energy drinks and coffees. Before me, 7th grade girls chugged Rockstars and one boy complained that his mocha needed more sugar. I wanted to yell “No! You cannot complain about needing energy! You are 12. You don’t know what it’s like to pull an all-nighter and write 25-page papers. Also, it’s a mocha, it basically IS sugar!”

Nonetheless, I composed myself and gave them Berkeley: The Kids Edition—highlighting 4.0 Hill, South Hall’s tiny bear, and the skeleton cast of Osborn the T-Rex. Being a student ambassador at the world’s top public university might seem like a glamorous job—and don’t get me wrong, it is—but sometimes it means doing the dirty work.

Every student sees a different side of Berkeley. That’s the magic of it; Berkeley really is what you make of it. For three of my four years at Berkeley, I saw it as a tour guide.

Before even deciding to attend Berkeley, I had researched everything about it—that’s just how I am. I can barely remember my campus tour guide, other than she made some errors in her spiel that I obnoxiously pointed out—to myself. What stuck more was the walkabout I took with my friend and former classmate, who had chosen Cal. She showed me the side of Berkeley I fell in love with: hidden pockets of the library, lush forests, cozy classrooms, places enhanced by personal significance. When it was my turn to show younger friends around, I imbued my tours with that same spirit. And in the fall of my sophomore year, I applied to do this as a job.

1.Berkeley used to use live bear cubs as mascots. This practice ended when it was discovered that cubs grow into adult bears.

I worked for weeks on my written application and when I heard back, I was gleeful—only to discover that the winnowing process had barely begun.

In the second round, a “group audition” at University Hall, we finalists had to pluck a mysterious item from a box. I extracted a coaster featuring a watercolor illustration of Hearst Mining Hall. I felt like I was among contestants at a game show.  We were peers but also competitors, and every person left me impressed and discouraged about my own prospects.

As a panel of stern interviewers looked on, we introduced ourselves and explained how our objects related to us and to Berkeley—my spiel jumped from coaster to tea as a time for communing with other students, an opportunity the university had given me.

Next I was pared with a partner to perform an impromptu skit based on an assigned scenario. Ours: A forlorn and depressed roommate needs help. We went for funny, at one point suggesting the sad roommate take a class on exotic mushroom science, and exhaled with relief when it was over. Then we were placed in teams and charged with devising some sort of list. Unbeknownst to us, veteran guides had infiltrated these groups and were assessing how we all acted away from the panel’s supervision. Brilliant. Also sneaky.

2.UC Berkeley has created more than 2,217 inventions, including the wetsuit, the cyclotron, and UNIX.

Last came an individual interview with the director and tour coordinator. Afterward I over-analyzed everything and pretty much abandoned hope. But then I got the callback.

If the interview process felt like an obstacle course, training was even more daunting. Guides must not only memorize a manual of information about Berkeley but truly know it, and pass a test. Among other things, I was required to name the colleges and graduate schools, the acreage of the campus, and all buildings designed by principle campus architect John Galen Howard. Next I had to hone my routine with a mentor ambassador. Then I faced the ultimate showdown: the “Director’s Tour.” The director is a fiery presence—as a wee trainee, I not only respected her but was wildly intimidated by her.

When we reached the end, I was called aside and told I didn’t pass.

I was mortified.

But the tour guide community is a family. Veteran guides confided that they hadn’t passed the first time either. And my mentor worked with me to fix my failings—I needed a better balance of anecdotes and facts, had to exude more confidence, and definitely needed to reduce the number of times I said “um” (once is too many for a tour guide).

3.Fictional alumni include TV characters Jack Bauer from “24,” C.J. Cregg from “The West Wing” and Sandy and Kirsten Cohen from “The O.C.” as well as movie characters Elaine from “The Graduate” and Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.”

On my second try, I did pass and thus became an official campus ambassador.

Tour guides get to see and hear about aspects of Berkeley most students don’t. We attended monthly staff meetings, during which guest speakers imparted their specialized insight and sought our feedback. Admissions gave us the low-down of how people do and don’t get in. The College of Environmental Design told us to stop perpetuating the myth that Wurster is the ugliest building on campus. Public Affairs put us in a focus group, which evolved into an honest dialog about Berkeley’s shortcomings as well as its strengths. For us, it was therapeutic to share our true feelings with people who mattered and were listening.

The zenith was connecting with high schoolers who were truly interested. When I saw an excited glint in their eyes, my hard work was worth it. I also gave tours to administrators from foreign universities, prospective employees, even the son of the former Brazilian ambassador to the United States.

I also got “cart-trained.” If you have a driver’s license, you can be taught how to use the Visitor Center golf cart, the snazzy electric vehicle in which we lead private tours and also sometimes transport VIPs on the endowment committee and even the chancellor. It can be harrowing to squeeze through a pair of poles, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve never gotten stuck.

4.Ludwig’s Fountain in Sproul Plaza was named for a German short-haired pointer who frequented campus. It is the only UC fixture named for an animal.

Besides walking backwards and the risk of falling (common misconception, we are not required to walk backwards), the biggest challenges of being a campus tour guide is to give visitors an honest representation of the school, while also sort of selling it to them. That doesn’t mean lying or spinning, but it does mean balancing. When asked the hard questions, I was honest. Budget cuts? Yes, I would acknowledge, they’re happening. But my classes haven’t been affected for the most part, and Berkeley gets a lot more private funding than many other universities. Liberal activism? It’s a history we’re proud of! Berkeley students can voice their opinions, but they don’t have to. Class size? It’s a big school, and it’s not for everyone. There are big classes, but also discussion sections and seminars and smaller upper division classes. The student to faculty ratio is 15 to 1.

Along the way, I met many people I won’t soon forget.

5.Berkeley’s Faculty Glade is known as “4.0 Hill” because legend holds that if you roll down it perfectly, you’ll get straight As.

That includes the parent I directed to an admissions presentation who somehow got lost, later returned to ask directions to somewhere else, and then snarled “How do I know if I can trust that? You led me astray before.” It also includes one of my first high school tour groups. At first the bored faces were disheartening—several straight out said they didn’t get why anyone would want to go to college. I did my best to gauge what it was they cared about, and work with that. In fact, I was asking more questions than they were. I didn’t get through to everyone, but at the end of the tour a few students lingered to ask me more questions. I got a sense of the latent ambition within them, and if felt really good to help them figure out where they wanted to be.

Now that I’ve graduated, I carry embedded in my brain a set of tour-guide factoids that will be of increasingly little use in my daily life. Over time, I know that some details will fade—even now, I can barely remember what year the Campanile was built (OK, it was 1914). But as I finish up an internship near campus, people still occasionally approach me asking for directions, and I find myself savoring these few remaining opportunities to be a campus guide.

I also know that that when I do leave here, Berkeley will forever be in my bones.

What highlight belongs on a campus tour of UC Berkeley? Share your favorite spot or piece of campus trivia by posting a comment below.

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