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Misguided Representation

Opinion | November 13, 2018

We are a group of Tufts tour guides who love talking to prospective students and parents about our experiences at this school. We know that the tours we give are crucial to the Office of Admissions’ success, and we work hard to accurately and fairly depict what college life at Tufts is like. But we are frustrated with the inequity, misrepresentation, and deception of the tour guide program at Tufts. We alone cannot speak to the multitude of experiences that Tufts students have, and the tour guide program administration actively limits the ability of all voices to be heard by prospective students.

 

We are unpaid volunteers. Our commitment to the program requires that we give at least seven tours a semester, during class blocks, weekends, and holidays. If we fail to give both the appropriate number of tours and attend regularly scheduled group meetings, we are removed from the program. Outside of the occasional complimentary donut and a discount at the campus bookstore, we receive very little recognition and compensation for our contributions.

 

By not paying tour guides, the program systematically ignores the financial barriers that prevent many students from devoting unpaid time and energy to the tour guide program. In the 2016-2017 school year, over 35 percent of the Tufts undergraduate student body received financial aid, which often includes a work-study component. Some university programs, such as Tisch Scholars and Tufts Literacy Corps, allow students to devote their time to these programs and receive payment through work-study in return. However, the tour guide program does not offer this option. Many students cannot afford the time commitment expected of guides if it does not count towards their work study, which leaves low-income students underrepresented in the group of guides. The program’s inaccessibility to students on financial aid sends the message to both current and prospective students that these voices are not valued.

 

Financial diversity is not the only element of the tour guide program that is lacking. Its executive board is also made up entirely of White students. When approached with the idea of adding a diversity-chair position to the board, the leaders of the program acknowledged the lack of representation, but made no efforts to create such a position.

 

The lack of diversity among tour guides specifically creates an issue in the case of special interest tours. Tufts offers these special interest tours to groups who are low-income, first generation college students, and people of color. Unfortunately, the tour guide program fails to take identity into account when assigning guides to these groups. Consequently, guides who cannot speak to these groups’ experiences end up leading these tours. A White student cannot describe the realities of being a student of color at Tufts. If the tour guide program itself cannot convey experiences of students who are not White and wealthy, it cannot succeed in presenting the Tufts experience fairly and in its entirety.

 

The voices of tour guides are essential to this school and should accurately reflect its student body. Without tour guides, the admissions office couldn’t attract incoming students, and Tufts wouldn’t remain competitive as an institution. The Tufts Undergraduate Admissions website states, “Tour guides are the most cited reason about why a student chooses to apply.” To Tufts, we are a key component of a campus visit experience; to us, tour guiding is an additional extracurricular activity in an already busy weekly schedule. We are by no means dependent on our role as tour guides in the same way that Tufts is dependent on us. There is an imbalance in the way in which we are valued, and that is evidenced in our lack of compensation.

Some may argue that Tufts does not have the funds to pay its student guides. However, compared to its peer institutions with comparable financial capabilities, Tufts is nearly singular in its failure to pay its tour guides. Other than Tufts and Middlebury, all schools in the NESCAC pay their tour guides, and the time commitment asked of Middlebury guides is much less than that expected of Tufts students.

 

In addition to our lack of compensation and representation, we have also been treated poorly by the Office of Admissions. Though we are volunteers, we are held accountable to our commitment as if it is a paid job. Throughout the week, we constantly receive a barrage of messages asking for help on severely understaffed tours in tones ranging from pleading, to desperate, to hostile. We are regularly threatened to be removed from the program if we do not give enough tours. When grievances such as these are posed to the program leadership, we often receive curt responses, which shut down any kind of discussion. The work conditions are alarming considering the contribution that we provide to the Office of Admissions.

 

So why do we still give tours? We have a genuine love for the work that we do. Giving a good tour is an incredible feeling; it can remind us of our favorite experiences at Tufts and allow us to share some excitement about college with prospective students. But for all of the students who remain a part of the tour guide program, there are countless others who have quit. Some are fed up with the problems in the system and are choosing to prioritize other parts of their lives; others have left because they need a paying job. Our choice to continue to give tours does not minimize the faults that exist in this program.

 

We have raised these concerns with leadership figures many times before. Individuals have spoken up on behalf of the misrepresentation and inequities that the tour guide program has allowed to continue. We have asked for payment, fair representation, and appropriate treatment, but have been regularly dismissed, without even a conversation. It is time, not only to begin a discussion that acknowledges these faults, but to take the action against the hypocrisy of the tour guide program. We are asking for a more equitable and representative tour guide program so that we, as campus guides, can continue to share a genuine love for the distinct and dynamic experiences of all Tufts students.