You've seen them on the Homewood campus—students guiding groups of wide-eyed prospective students and their families as they depart from Mason Hall or walk along Charles Street near the Beach.
For many Johns Hopkins applicants, visiting the campus is one of the first—and most critical—opportunities to get to know the university. And with upward of 48,000 visitors coming for tours in 2018, making sure everything runs smoothly is no easy task.
That's where Bianca Decatur comes in. An admissions counselor in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Decatur is one of three advisers for the Blue Key Society, a group of students serving as the face of the university through tours, coffee chats, info sessions, hosted stays, and more.
As a Blue Key adviser, Decatur works closely with the organization's student leadership, assisting as they guide the roughly 100 new members each year through a semester-long training process before joining the ranks of Blue Key tour guides.
"When the students are out on the tours, when they're talking to families and students, you can tell that they really love this place," Decatur says. "And they have a desire to share that love."
The campus tour is an experience close to her heart. It wasn't too long ago that Decatur was hosting her own tours as a student at the University of Virginia, from which she graduated in May 2018.
Her current role is a full-circle moment for Decatur, who came to Johns Hopkins two months later. "Coming straight from college, where I was a student training other students, now I'm the person who is in charge of those student leaders," she says. "So that's been a lot of fun."
Do you train the new tour guides?
The three advisers from our office oversee students who are in leadership positions with the Blue Key Society, and then the students in leadership oversee the rest of the organization. We have two students who serve as new-member coordinators, and they are the two who deal with the hands-on training for the new guides.
What's the training process like?
The new-member coordinators take new Blue Key students through four weeks of training where they learn the tour route, learn information about Hopkins in general, learn how to answer any tough questions that they may get from students and their families, and work on their public speaking skills as well. At the end of the four weeks, we will send them out to do mock tours where they'll be evaluated by current members. It's a pretty big operation.
What is the busiest time of year for tours?
It depends on where we are in the admissions cycle. During the spring, there's a lot of programming for admitted students. We hosted over 2,000 visits to campus in April and July. Our highest day for visitors is consistently Good Friday—in 2019, we saw 1,300 visitors, which is about the same size as our incoming first-year class. During SOHOP [Spring Open House and Overnight Program] we actually have tours go out in different languages. Last year we did English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Korean, and we'll be continuing that this year.
What happens on a typical tour?
It's about a 10-stop tour, usually starting at Mason Hall, that takes students and their families in a complete loop. [The tour guides] will walk them through campus and talk about things like interdisciplinary learning, Baltimore, housing. The tour really focuses on the student experience.
We give students a route and certain topics to cover, but they can choose whatever they want to make those points. So students get to craft their own tours, which is really cool. During the last stop, here at Mason, most students choose to say why they chose to come to Hopkins, which I think always adds a personal touch, too.
What's challenging about your job?
It can be tough pulling together everybody's tour schedules when it's still the add-drop period and students are changing class schedules. But, at the end of the day, they're students and they're here for school, and that takes priority over everything.
I'm sure it's hard, too, because the longest you would have someone as a tour guide would be two or three years?
There are some students who start in their first year and stay all four years, which is pretty cool to see. But, yeah, it's also hard having students cycle out because there are so many good students that we lose every year because they graduate. We do have plenty of alums who work in our office, and we always love for students to stick around, but most students will go out and do something else. So it is always hard losing those students each year.
What are people surprised to learn about what you do?
When I talk to friends and family about my job, I'll have to explain that I do more than just reading applications. People are always surprised to learn that it's not just about recruiting and traveling, that there are a lot of other moving pieces, too.
So what else do you do as an admissions counselor?
There is recruitment, which usually happens in the fall. I cover Los Angeles County and the surrounding area, so I'm gone for most of September and October.
Reading applications is the second part of being an admissions officer, the evaluation and selection of new students. Then we move into what we call yield season, which is that time in the spring where students have gotten their decisions back and they're deciding which school they want to go to. We have a lot of programming here on campus during that time, like SOHOP, our Blue Jay days, our Humanities Overnight Program, and Excel Youth Conference.
Then we move into the summer, when we're doing a lot of planning and reviewing all our data and numbers from the past recruitment cycle to see where things fell. After that, we start all over again.
What do you love the most?
Working with students is definitely very high up there because not everyone in our office gets to work with students. I feel like I know most of them. It's always nice to know what they have going on and see what they're doing and hear how their classes are going.
What has been a rewarding moment for you so far?
Last year there was a student I met on the road in my region when I visited her high school. And then she came to campus to visit, so I saw her again. Then I read her application, and she was admitted. She ended up depositing and matriculating to Hopkins. So it was really cool to have that first cycle of a student you meet on the road who applies and gets in, and then who actually decides to come.