By JOHN SNIFFEN
Article originally appears in SCENE Magazine | Fall 2016.
Absent from Schreiner University’s September celebration of another record-breaking enrollment were the six admissions counselors who helped make it possible. If they paused to celebrate, it was in a distant location such as San Antonio, Houston or Harlingen. They were already recruiting for fall 2017.
The admission counselors are literally traveling salespersons for the university. Highways, motels, fast food, and high school and junior college campuses, are their daily routine for six to eight weeks every fall, and four to six weeks every spring. A day’s work may bring them into contact with a handful of students in a school library, or thousands of prospects and their parents in an arena.
Bryan Benway, who holds a degree in mass communication from Plattsburgh State University, was living in Houston and working in sports broadcasting when he heard about an opening on the admissions staff through “a friend of a friend” of Dr. Larry Cantu, vice president for Enrollment Services.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” says Benway, who in his free time still does sports announcing in San Antonio, which is also his primary recruiting area. “I get paid to talk a lot, to meet people, and to travel. Every day is different, on the road or on a high school campus. There’s lots of energy around high school and college students. It keeps me fresh.”
Rebecca Cott, who holds a bachelor’s degree in global studies from St. Edwards University, agrees. Now in her second year with Schreiner, she likes the work because she enjoys meeting new people. “I love learning about different cultures and interfacing with people from all walks of life. That’s what we get to do every day.”
Smith Scarborough is also a graduate of a liberal arts school—Rhodes College in Memphis—with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing. There he was a student “diplomat,” like Schreiner’s ambassadors, and hosted prospective students, “I love talking to people, I’m a big fan of higher education, and I am good at it, so it seems like a good fit.”
Counselors may attend two or three different events in one day, setting up and taking down their displays, and standing for hours talking to students and parents. Add texting, voicemails and emails, and they are also always responding to questions and planning ahead.
“We’re using social media more and more,” says Benway, “but face-to-face is still best. We need to be visible to the students and parents, so we’re traveling more than ever.”
The counselors have to come prepared to answer anything from the details of a specific major to why a “deer-to-student” ratio (28 to 1) is listed on the promotional “Monty paw.” They also occasionally have to explain that “No, at Schreiner we don’t wear funny hats.”
“You never know what to expect,” says Benway. “Students who are dating may break up in front of you.”
One time a bat got loose at a college fair at O’Connor High School in San Antonio. Benway was talking with several students and parents, when he heard a scream. “People were moving tables and trying to get away. The bat swooped down, and they ran toward the doors, like in a horror movie.”
Loyal to his work—or just uncertain what else to do—Benway says, “I just kept talking.” A student’s father eventually caught the bat, locked it in a bathroom, and the fair resumed.
Bad weather can be another of the traveling counselors’ problems. Cott, who primarily works the Houston area, arrived for a college fair there in the midst of a downpour.
“I couldn’t even get out of my car. When there was a lull in the rain, I grabbed my display and materials, and ran for the door. Every other counselor had the same idea at the same time, and we all gathered there, only to be told that it was the wrong door.
“We finally got inside, and I stood for two hours in my flats, which were soaking wet. Afterward, I looked down and saw that the polish on my shoes had run. My feet were solid black.”
Scarborough, who covers South Texas and international students for Schreiner, ran track in college and now runs ultra- marathons for pleasure. He’s obviously in good condition, but he underestimated the rigors of a long day of college fairs.
During his first year, he had a four-and-a-half hour college fair in Brownsville, followed by a couple of two-hour events in San Benito and Harlingen on the same day. “Talking to one student after another, telling them about Schreiner—by the end of the day I had lost my voice. I was not prepared.”
When he went back the next year, he was ready. “The counselors from the other schools laughed at me, but I had Gatorade and some of carbohydrate energy gels I use on my runs. Also, I conserved my voice from the start.”
A large number of recruits they contact come to them through the Schreiner Athletic Department. “Coaches are targeting recruits all year,” says Benway. “Many times the first contact is a coach. They help with lists of potential students. They bring in a ton of students.”
The recruiters from different schools spend many hours together during the fair season. “You are typically in alphabetical order at college fairs, so within a month you will know the sales pitch for Sam Houston or SMU, since they are always next to you,” says Caroline Randall, who traveled the circuit for eight years and as associate dean for Enrollment Services, oversees the current counselors.
If a student comes to the Schreiner display, but is looking for a major or activity which the university does not offer, the Schreiner counselors will refer them to other schools that do, says Benway. “And they do the same for us.”
There’s also after-hours socializing, friendships develop, and even some good-natured teasing occurs. Having some fun with a peer who has over-slept or partied too much is also a possibility. “Fairs start about 8:30 a.m., and if a counselor’s late, sometimes we’ll hide their stuff,” admits Scarborough.
Scarborough says there’s much more to the job than “just being friendly all the time.”
“I’m constantly making notes. When a student fills out one of our inquiry cards and walks away, I immediately turn it over and write something like ‘Wore maroon Converses’ on the reverse side. When I call them later, I say, “This is Smith from Schreiner. Are you still wearing those Schreiner-colored chucks?”
“If you make it personal, it makes a difference,” says Scarborough. “We’re the face of Schreiner for them.”
In addition to fast food consumed while driving to and from events, most of the admissions counselors subsist on sub sandwiches, chips, and chocolate chip cookies, the standard fare provided by sponsors at the college fairs. The occasional salad or a bowl of soup are considered reasons to celebrate. Scarborough pre-packages his food to maintain his training diet.
The long hours and travel may make the life of an admissions counselor more attractive to younger men and women, but it can be for anyone who loves to travel and schmooze, says Randall. The average “life span” of a counselor is 18 months, because most consider it a stair-step job, not a destination. That can be a problem for the university.
“Longevity is essential to success,” she explains. “It can be hard to learn all about territory, make strong connections with key schools and administration, and develop relationships with students throughout their admission process. Students and parents love having someone to connect to--someone they can call for anything throughout the year.”
It’s no wonder that counselors look forward to a few days off when, as Benway says, they can “re-energize.”
Scarborough, who is a Jimmie Hendrix fan, practices his electric guitar (without the amplifier) in his motel room, and trains for his ultra-marathons. Cott likes to read, workout in the motel gym, and not talk—“conserving my voice for the concert hall.” Benway likes to try out recommended restaurants and visit with nearby friends.
And, like other “road warriors,” they do laundry, check in with the office, and prep for the next events on their calendar.