Five first-year students who arrived on campus in the fall of 2018 were saddened, though not surprised, by the lack of diversity on campus. In response, Maya Gee, Roni Lezema, Dennis Miranda-Cruz, Cynthia Chen and Myles Maxie, all of the class of 2022, partnered with the admissions office to establish a Student Ambassador Program, which was put into practice last fall.
The program enables Middlebury students from rural, low-income and ethnically diverse areas to serve as admissions ambassadors to high schools in their hometowns and surrounding areas — areas that the college’s admissions counselors don’t visit often.
“We believe that, above all else, students want to go to a college where they envision themselves being happy,” the program’s founders said in an October Campus op-ed. “In our experience, the best way to help them have that vision in the first place is by watching and listening to someone from their own hometown speak about the school.”
The five students met on the SGA Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (formerly known as the Institutional Diversity Committee) in the fall of 2018.
“The Middlebury community as we see it right now reflects a lot of what Middlebury used to be, but also the evolving efforts to include more students of marginalized backgrounds that typically weren’t represented in higher education,” said Gee, who grew up in rural Hawaii. Gee visited a number of high schools in her capacity as an ambassador when she was home this winter break.
“If we want to be fostering a diverse community on campus, we have to make sure that we are inviting those communities to campus,” she added.
Although they discussed developing this program as a student organization, the founding members agreed that they wanted it to be institutionalized under the umbrella of the admissions office. Nicole Curvin, the dean of admissions, and Santana Audet ’13, the senior assistant director of admissions and coordinator of diversity, inclusion and access initiatives, have been integral in this endeavor, according to Gee.
The founders began collaborating with the admissions office that fall and ran what they call a “pilot program” in spring 2019.
While the program is now an official part of the admissions office, it remains entirely student-run.
“Five first years came to us two years ago and I left that meeting so energized and motivated by their infectious enthusiasm and engagement,” Audet said. “I want this to always be a student-led initiative because that’s where the energy comes from. Our office’s support will maintain the longevity and historical knowledge of the program as students come and go, but this will become a student legacy.”
Now, the program is made up of three coordinators— Gee, Dennis Miranda-Cruz ’22 and Cynthia Chen ’22 — and 18 student ambassadors. They hope that the program will double in size each year, eventually employing over 100 student ambassadors.
Off the beaten path
The Office of Admissions has about a dozen admissions counselors that each travel approximately six weeks out of the year, visiting four or five schools a day. They attempt to balance visiting schools that traditionally send applications and visiting schools from which they hope to see applications.
Still, many of the schools that the student ambassadors are now hoping to reach are often left out. To maximize each counselor’s outreach, they often forgo visits to rural areas with few students.
New Student Ambassadors are trained to give information sessions about the college to prospective students, while adding personal touches to connect with high school students in their own hometowns.
“We know that nothing works better than personal contact when it comes to helping a student see themselves at Middlebury,” Audet said.
Student Ambassadors intend to do most of their outreach in the spring, which is the opposite of the fall travel schedule for the college’s admissions counselors. Each high school on the list has never been visited by the college, and is in an area considered either high poverty or extremely rural.
Ambassadors get paid $20 per two-hour visit. Although visits are typically only one hour long, the extra hour accounts for potential travel time. The admissions office recommends that students travel to high schools no more than 30 miles away from their home addresses.
Gee estimated that student ambassadors have already completed 15–20 visits in 2020.
“We are reaching out to an entirely new demographic. For me personally, there were a lot of students I visited in Hawaii who ended up applying to Middlebury from high schools who had previously never had any applications to Middlebury,” Gee said.