A university's athletics programs are often referred to as the “front porch” because they are typically the most visible point of interaction between the university and the general public. Attending one of Baylor’s championship-caliber sporting events in person or watching the Bears win a championship on national television may be a prospective student’s first introduction to the University.
However, many times the first true “face” of Baylor for these future students is, in fact, a BEAR — one of the more than 130 students who make up the elite Baylor Experience and Admissions Representatives (BEAR) team.
Representing one of the most diverse and mission-focused groups on campus, the BEARs team takes on the hybrid format of being the front line for campus visit operations while maintaining the familial and fraternal feel of a student organization. Students manage a wide range of tasks across campus, including providing carefully curated campus experiences to prospective students and visitors. These student representatives hail from across the country and around the globe and often narrate a visitor’s first personal connection to campus.
Ross VanDyke, B.A. ’03, Baylor’s senior director of undergraduate admissions, oversees the BEARs program, which represent more than a friendly face in the countless carts that crisscross campus, ferrying families on tours. VanDyke says some BEARs students are involved in as many as 10 campus organizations; for others, BEARs is their only organization. He sees BEARs as a place for students to learn who they want to be.
“This is part of their college experience, and my hope is that it’s a positive one,” VanDyke says. “We put them in situations that really stretch them to do their best: how to answer a phone call; how to respond properly to an email; how to respond to somebody who may not be having their best day; how to lead a group presentation to over 5,000 students.”
Meredith Mrok, B.B.A. ’19, is Baylor’s coordinator of visit experiences. She was a BEAR as an undergraduate student and jumped at the opportunity to join the staff that works with the student representatives.
“It is a unique community, and many BEARs say this job is one of the most formational and fun organizations they get to be a part of at Baylor,” Mrok says. “The professional staff team is passionate about giving BEARs skills they will use for the rest of their personal and professional lives.”
Students interested in joining the BEARs program likely never see a formal recruitment effort or advertisement to join. Instead, current BEARs recruit and enlist those around them to take the plunge into a rigorous vetting and training process.
“Great students typically recruit great students,” VanDyke says. “Whether it’s their friend or their roommate or somebody they’re in another organization with, they typically find other individuals that would be a good fit for us.”
In what is described as an American Idol audition format, 150 to 200 prospective BEARs gather in a lecture classroom. Four or five students at a time are called to quickly answer questions related to a wide range of Baylor facts and figures. Those who advance to group interviews are asked to prepare presentations on five subjects, one of which is chosen at random for the student to discuss in front of a 20-person peer group. The final round is an individual interview with three staff members and a current senior BEAR leader.
“We really have students who come from all walks of life,” VanDyke says. “They take it really seriously. We challenge them to think that while it may be their hundredth tour, for that prospective student and their family, it’s their first time. It’s their one shot to be able to tell them anything and everything there is to know about Baylor.”
Once the interviewees officially join the team and commit to anywhere from 12 to 20 hours of work each week, prospective BEARs start out as “cubs” and begin a lengthy training process. After three to six months of training, the BEARs get the call to perform one of the most crucial and effective recruitment efforts on campus: welcoming prospective students to Baylor and Waco.
Admitted students who participate in a coordinated on-campus Baylor visit are four times more likely to enroll than those who do not visit. Vincent Phillips, Baylor’s assistant director of admissions visit experience, takes this to heart.
“This is a special place, and I naturally found myself wanting to bring the world in,” Phillips says. “We can’t recreate all the things that we do here everywhere, but we can bring people here from everywhere to experience it. We are more than academics. We are more than athletics. We are more than student life. We are Baylor.”
Taking an honest, authentic approach to crafting a visit experience encourages prospective students to see everything that Baylor offers. VanDyke says the goal is to emulate what it is like to be a Baylor Bear with the hope that it aligns with the student’s aspirations.
“It’s okay if someone doesn’t choose Baylor, but we never want to be the reason — from a customer service perspective — why someone doesn’t choose Baylor,” VanDyke says. “We’d much rather a student find out today that this isn’t the place for them than to find out in a year or two once they’re already here. It’s not good for the University, and — most of all — it’s not good for the student.”
Many of the students on tours have yet to graduate high school, let alone turn their eyes to a Baylor diploma. Nonetheless, the BEARs approach to recruiting students keeps the goal of that eventual walk across the commencement stage at the forefront of each walk across campus on a tour.
“We’re trying to recruit an incoming class, but we’re also trying to recruit a graduating class,” VanDyke says. “We want the right students who are going to be here for four years and then graduate. The more we can set them up for success and demonstrate that is of great importance.”
Campus visits were much different more than a decade ago. They were typically Saturday mornings, less tailored to students’ needs and far from thorough. When tour attendance increased and campus tours moved to a daily practice, larger buses were acquired to meet the rising demand. However, students and families were unable to truly connect with the campus experience.
VanDyke says the tour-bus era tours were far from the ideal way to experience Baylor’s campus. The tours primarily focused on the exterior of facilities and led to the idea of moving from tour buses to oversized golf carts.
“We looked at surveys and there were three big issues,” VanDyke says. “Students didn’t really feel they saw other students. Because it was a drive along the perimeter, it made campus seem large. Once you’ve been here a while you know it’s really not that big. And, they didn’t really get a feel for facilities because we weren’t going into that many buildings.”
Tours shifted from large bus excursions with a dozen families to carts or walking tours with one to three. This greatly increased the ability to tailor tours to a prospective student’s interests and academic preferences. Baylor’s special aspects became more visible, differentiating the University in the sea of sameness across peer institutions. Phillips says a campus visit is more than a tour.
“It’s an experience,” he says. “The intentionality behind every aspect of a guest’s time here is without a doubt one of the most talked-about portions of the visit. No matter where guests are from or what they want to study, they are treated as a VIP.”
Baylor and Waco have grown, and the interest to join these communities has skyrocketed. With this, the task for BEARs has expanded to sharing with students more about the opportunity to live, work and play here. Inserting local goods and vendors — such as Common Grounds and Vitek’s — into the visit experience has been a resounding success.
Attractions like Topgolf and Magnolia create opportunities to extend campus life into the community. In 2021, Baylor entered a first-of-its-kind partnership with Topgolf, creating a Baylor-branded VIP space used by prospective students on visits. A similar agreement with Magnolia allows families to show a card at the register and receive a free cupcake on Baylor’s tab.
“On face value, they are going to get a cupcake,” VanDyke says. “But it’s all of the things that they are going to see between here and there and downtown Waco, to see that there are a lot of things happening here, and this is where they’re going to spend the next four years.”
Personalizations extend to the campus and academic concentrations, as well. There are opportunities to meet current students, student life representatives, staff from across campus and often enjoy one-on-one appointments with Baylor’s world-class faculty. VanDyke says the goal is to craft the experience so that each visitor has an itinerary built to their needs.
“We believe that’s worth it to get those questions answered,” he says. “Most of the faculty they meet with are faculty they would actually be in the classroom with or researching with. That is pretty powerful and a big bragging point for Baylor. We get rave reviews in regards to their interactions with our faculty.”
Traveling in carts along the Bear Trail more accurately shows the size of campus and allows the tours to stop at the doorsteps of multiple campus buildings. This includes specifically stopping at buildings that coincide with the prospective student’s field of study.
Pending availability, the crown jewel of the Baylor visit experience is a ride across the Brazos River and onto the McLane Stadium field. There, they learn how to “Sic ’Em” and hear the Baylor Line story.
“We hope that is better than anything that anybody else is doing,” VanDyke says. “That’s pretty special. That’s enough to call it a VIP tour.”
When COVID-19 shuttered most operations across campus and around the world, BEARs adjusted to continue safely allowing single family tours while mitigating risks to each other and visitors through masking and increased sanitization efforts. These visits — exclusively for seniors approaching final deadline decisions — played a part in Baylor reaching a record enrollment milestone for the fall 2021 semester and maintaining attendance benchmarks.
Whether it’s Baylor’s annual national television commercial or special productions like 2021’s The College Tour on Amazon Prime TV, the BEARs program is a natural source of on-air talent for promotional purposes, one of the many opportunities that BEARs have through the program.
VanDyke believes BEARs is the best student-employment opportunity Baylor offers. Regular interactions with President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D., First Gent Brad Livingstone, faculty members and head coaches Dave Aranda, Scott Drew and Nicki Collen highlight the experience. BEARs also regularly guide tours for prospective student-athletes.
“It’s more than a job,” VanDyke says. “It’s an opportunity to be able to set yourself up for long-term success.”
As the BEARs team continues to evolve and adapt, another marker of change rapidly rises from the dirt near the intersection of University Parks Drive and Interstate 35. Ground was broken in 2020 for the Mark and Paula Hurd Welcome Center, which will provide a prominent front door to the campus. The 120,000-square-foot facility will house undergraduate admissions, the BEARs team, the campus visits program and the McLane Alumni Center.
The Hurd Welcome Center will include auditoriums, dining capabilities and a central location for Baylor to make a remarkable first impression. Plans include creating a multi-use space that can be transformed to fit virtually any recruitment need. VanDyke says the facility will set the stage for what Baylor is.
“This is what you can look to experience throughout your four years,” he says. “It will allow us to meet and interact with guests in a way that we’ve never been able to do before due to size constraints of our current facilities.”
Though the Hurd Center is a significant factor in improving campus visits, VanDyke and his team are constantly innovating to make a Baylor visit even more memorable.
“Everyone who works in admissions at Baylor knows how special this place is. We want to do everything we can to communicate what makes Baylor distinctive,” VanDyke says. “If anyone — from faculty and staff to our students — has an idea about how we can make a Baylor visit better for our guests, my mantra is: Absolutely, let’s make it happen.”