Skip to main content

Retired staff, alumni lead campus tours for new UW–Madison employees

November 1, 2023 By Bill Graf


Through the window of a trolly-style bus, a passenger looks out at a stone archway with the words Camp Randall inscribed across the top.

New UW employees take part in a bus tour designed to provide an overview of campus locations, including highlight such as the Camp Randall arch, and orient new faculty and staff. Photo: Bryce Richter

When they say “onboarding” at UW–Madison, they literally mean “on board.”

Recently hired University of Wisconsin–Madison faculty and staff — once they’ve met their new coworkers, signed up for benefits and learned where to find the Post-It notes and paper clips — have the opportunity to board a fun-size tour bus and see the sprawling, 933-acre campus that is their new workplace.

The Office of Human Resources has resumed the monthly tours, paused in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a twist. They are now led by people who’ve been here and, in many cases, done that: retired UW–Madison employees and alumni. Previously, student tour guides from Campus and Visitor Relations conducted the tours.

A view of passengers on the bus shows new employees looking out the windows as they pass buildings on UW's campus.

New UW employees, including research associate in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences Ambreen Hamadani (front), take in the views and follow along with a campus map. Photo: Bryce Richter

Doug Bradley, who worked for more than three decades as a UW–Madison and UW System communications professional, was one of the first to answer the university retirement association’s call for volunteers. He was eager to regale the next generation of employees with a career’s worth of tidbits, factoids and anecdotes that don’t show up on a campus map.

“I felt like my experience both professionally and physically on the campus gave me a lot of unique perspective,” Bradley says, “not just on buildings, but stories and history — and I thought that would be something worth sharing.”

On his first outing recently, as the driver maneuvered a trolley-style bus toward the hairpin turn up Observatory Drive, Bradley rattled off: who the Memorial Union is a memorial to; why Helen C. White has a library named after her; and what Radio Hall has to do with radio.

Valentina Marulanda Ospina, who rode along on a tour just days after starting her job as a translator and interpreter in Cultural Linguistic Services, says introducing her and her colleagues in this way to the people, places and history that make up UW–Madison was a great idea.

A woman on the bus reads a pamphlet containing a campus map.

New employee Valentina Marulanda Ospina, a translator and interpreter in Cultural Linguistic Services, follows along with a campus map. Photo: Bryce Richter

“Sometimes we’re too caught up with our work in our offices, and we don’t really get to go out and see how big the campus is,” Ospina says. “So, I think this is a very good initiative to give new employees an overview of this very cool place that we’re working for now.”

The tours, an optional add-on to the New Employee Orientation sessions offered in-person and virtually each month, are intended for new employees or any employee who wants to get to know UW’s main campus better, says Marci Birkes-Geffert, onboarding and performance management coordinator in OHR’s Learning and Talent Development office. Because seating is limited, advance registration is required.

“The retired employees and alumni leading the tours have a passion for our UW community and history,” Birkes-Geffert says. “They help employees explore outside their immediate work area, and get to know the greater campus — some of our iconic buildings, historical stories and traditions, and any other fun items they decide to throw in.”

Behind the wheel in a blue, vintage uniform and driver’s cap, David Dill interjected some campus lore of his own while navigating the busy streets — including memories from his undergrad days of sliding down the chute in spooky Science Hall, just as (according to legend) anatomy-class cadavers did back in the day.

A man in a train conductor-style hat drives the bus.

David Dill drives the bus and chimes in with lesser-known facts about the campus’s history. Photo: Bryce Richter

They don’t tell you this stuff in the HR manual.

“I have lived in Madison and Middleton most of my life, and I loved seeing campus this way,” says Denise Hoffman, a recently hired medical program assistant in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

Each tour begins with a solemn acknowledgement, as the bus pulls away from 21 N. Park St., that the university is on land taken from the Ho-Chunk people. Passengers learn about joint campus and tribal efforts to come to terms with this difficult history and honor Wisconsin’s First Nations in meaningful ways.

Ken Abosch, an adjunct professor of management and human resources in the Wisconsin School of Business, says the tour introduced him to areas of campus he never knew existed beyond his home base in Grainger Hall.

“I had walked around parts of the campus but didn’t really know what I didn’t know,” Abosch says. “And while campus maps are very good, it’s so much more consumable to have someone explain the layout as you are experiencing it.”

Each guide is free to draw from their own experience to emphasize their own personal highlights — whether it’s the fanciest restroom on campus or the sports facilities where nationally ranked student-athletes compete.

One guide with a special appreciation for how beneficial the tours can be is Pam Dollard, who spent her career in human resources with the Division of Extension and other campus units. Many new hires, she says, are unfamiliar with the vast scope of the university’s physical footprint and workforce.

Standing at the front of the bus, a woman wearing a white sweatshirt with a red UW logo speaks to the unpictured passengers.

Pam Dollard, retired director of Human Resources in the Division of Extension and volunteer tour guide, narrates the tour for new employees. Photo: Bryce Richter

“It’s such a beautiful campus, and it’s a lot for people to take in. As an HR person, I think the new employee experience is really important in making people feel like they’re part of the community … (and) part of such a world class university.”

If the tours have a shortcoming, several participants agreed — and the organizers would concede — it’s that the tight, one-hour schedule doesn’t permit stops to get out and visit landmarks like the Red Gym and Carillon Tower.

There will be time for landmarks later. In the meantime, these new employees are ready to make their mark.

“What I was impressed with and glad to see,” says Doug Bradley, “(was) just this sense of people who are smart and engaged and ready to face some challenges and do some good.”