Skip to main content

VIP tours give inside look at what it means to be a UW-Madison student

February 28, 2012 By Gillian Losh

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Union South. Microbial Sciences. The Lakeshore residential neighborhood. Observatory Drive. Bascom Hill—but only the downhill route.

Photo: Jessica McCarty

Jessica McCarty (center), visitor relations coordinator in Visitor & Information Programs, meets with student tour guides Kimi Lillig (left) and Alex Douglas (right) in Union South to discuss campus tours routes.

Photo: Bryce Richter

These are just some of the destinations on the Visitor and Information Programs campus tour, designed to give prospective students, special groups and other visitors an inside look at life at UW–Madison.

Jessica McCarty, visitor relations coordinator for Visitor and Information Programs — called VIP — is in charge of establishing the tour route and collaborating with the rest of her department and student guides to ensure tours remain a unique experience for visitors. The prospective student tour, formerly based in the Red Gym, now begins and ends at Union South.

Since Union South was completed, the tour has been completely rerouted, although the stops on the tour have remained largely the same. The tour has also been adapted to include such newly constructed buildings as the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and the Microbial Sciences building.

When it comes to adding new buildings to the tour, logistics and content are taken into account, McCarty says. For the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, it is a state-of-the-art facility unique to UW–Madison and it happens to be close to Union South; for Microbial Sciences, it is a chance for prospective students to see real laboratories and it is also close to the Lakeshore Residence Halls.

“The buildings we go into are there to represent all the schools and colleges in the university as best we can,” McCarty says. “We want groups to see a variety of different residence halls, classrooms — small discussion rooms, lecture halls, laboratories — and also be an efficient use of walking time.”

The tour otherwise remains largely consistent. The new route from Union South is the biggest change to the tour in 10 years, McCarty says.

The process of adjusting the tour involves plenty of feedback from the eight professional staff and the 42 student tour guides.

In addition to the better-known tours for prospective students, VIP also coordinates customized visits for other groups.

The aspects of the tour that change the most are the time allotted and how best to showcase UW–Madison’s campus in that timeframe, McCarty says.

The process of developing specific tours revolves around collaboration with other departments and UW–Madison faculty and staff, says VIP director Steve Amundson.

“Jessica and her staff have done a great job partnering with departments and groups on campus in hopes of showcasing the incredible discovery and research that’s taking place,” Amundson says. “Jessica and her office pride themselves on marketing and promoting this institution as an educational destination for visitors and community members alike.”

VIP also coordinates tours for conferences, foreign delegations, guests of researchers, summer camps and K-12 school groups, to name a few. The most common is elementary school class field trips visiting UW–Madison as part of units on Wisconsin history. One custom tour was made up of a foreign delegation of Iraqi developers.

“It’s fun when we get a call and someone says, ‘We want a tour,’” McCarty says. “You never know where it’s going to go. You want to make the most of their time on campus and give them the Wisconsin experience.”

When a group calls for a special tour, McCarty and her staff customize the visit based on multiple factors, including what the group wants to see, what their interests are and how much time they have.

No matter the audience, however, student tour guides lead every tour.

“UW-Madison tours are unique because you have students as tour guides who are putting a different perspective on each tour,” Amundson says. “They’re not robots, what you see with one guide is different from another. It’s not a canned tour, it’s based on the audience and reflects the tour guide and their personal anecdotes.”

Student guides go through an intensive four-day, 40-hour training “boot camp” where they are taught the basics of the tour, public speaking skills and information resources. They attend presentations on admissions, UW Housing, police and safety, and financial aid to make sure they equipped to answer questions on the tour.

While it can be hard to fit in every individual college and residence hall on campus, VIP customizes tours with input from family and friends on the tour. Then the interests of the tour group itself create the tour, McCarty says.

“Tour guides are intuitive when they go around and introduce themselves. If someone says they’re interested in accounting, when they go through Grainger, they may say, ‘Oh, you mentioned you have an interest in accounting,’” McCarty says.

Whether walking through the Social Sciences building or listening to a student guide talk about his or her experiences in the Badger football student section or university housing as a freshman, tour groups are able to get a sense of what it’s like to be a student at UW–Madison.

The key to UW–Madison VIP tours is being a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to UW–Madison trivia and resources.

“It has a lot to do with knowing a little bit about a lot,” McCarty says. “For example, where would we go to go to find more if someone says they want a CALS tour or an engineering tour? We know our resources. No one knows off the top of their head everything about everything, but we can work to create that customized experience.”