Close Encounter with a Campus Curmudgeon

Sometimes organizations get so busy with the tangible means of communication — websites, newsletters, e-mails, brochures — that they overlook the power of communication in its most organic form: face to face.

An episode during a college campus visit with my son last week drove this point home.

We visited George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., because my son is interested in the school’s Film and Video Studies major. He has carefully researched colleges, looking at what they offer academically as well as how they stack up economically. GMU is his first choice and I’m confident he’ll be accepted as a freshman next fall. The purpose of this visit was to take a closer look, but Max told me it would take a really bad experience to give him second thoughts about attending GMU.

I mention the name of the school because it deserves a lot of credit for its well-run marketing program. Campus visits are an important part of any school’s marketing effort. Everything from the cleanliness and vibrancy of the campus to the attitudes of the people can contribute to a prospective student’s — and parent’s — decision about whether or not to apply.

GMU did a bang-up job of putting forth a positive vibe. The campus is attractive and easy to get around. Several building projects left us with the impression that this school is going places (and it is, based on a magazine’s recent rankings).  The people in the admissions office were friendly and helpful. The student who led the campus tour exuded enthusiasm.

We found a brand-new building that houses GMU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. Outside, we encountered several faculty who spoke highly of the major in which Max is interested.

We went inside the building seeking more information. Construction on the building was just finished and faculty were moving in, but one woman asked if she could help us. We told her we were interested in visiting some of the facilities where Max might study. It turns out we were in the wrong building, but the woman helpfully began to look up names of people who might be able to help us.

Then, out of nowhere, another woman appeared.

“What is your interest in film and video?” she asked.

Max politely replied that ultimately he would like to be a screenwriter and maybe a film director one day.

“Well, I would advise you to take a closer look at this major because it might not be what you think it is,” she snapped. “There is a heavy emphasis on communication.” And then, as quickly as she had appeared, she was gone.

While the other woman busily looked up information, Max and I looked at each other in disbelief. Perhaps the woman was the campus curmudgeon.

The fact is that Max had done his homework on the major. He knows what courses he’ll take (including advanced screenwriting, ethics and the business of film and video). He understands what he will learn. He knows the program is a good fit for his undergraduate work. To his credit, he was not dissuaded by the curmudgeon’s attack.

But what if Max was a student who had not done so much advance work? What if he was a student who was visiting several college campuses and was undecided about which one to attend? This woman’s discouragement might have been all it took to turn away a prospective student. And for an organization that is in business to attract students, that is not a good thing.

The same principle is true no matter what business your organization is in. More than marketing materials and polished presentations and whiz-bang websites, it often comes down to the face-to-face experience. That’s a communication issue and it’s one that organizations can’t afford to overlook.


2 Responses

  1. Ah, you met the Phantom of the Film Department, or some such urban legend. Who was that person?

    Since you are the Master Communicator and your son Max’s best mentor, I think he fully understands the communication aspect of his chosen field of study.

    It’s funny about first impressions. I hope the school realizes it has some weirdos on the loose. They’d be lucky to get a fine young man like Max.


    • Thank you, Les. Based on the rest of our experience that day, I believe she was an anomaly, but a vivid reminder of the fragility of a good message when left in the hands of people who really don’t seem to care what kind of impression they leave.

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