When Paige Donahue received a text message from her sister Tuesday afternoon that said there was a surprise waiting for her when she returned home from work, the 18-year-old thought that maybe her family had bought her a new puppy.
But by the time Donahue arrived at her East Bridgewater home, she realized that what she was getting was far better than a furry pet.
Parked in her driveway was a car full of faculty and staff from Wheaton College, balloons in hand. They were there, mashed into the vehicle, to personally congratulate Donahue for being accepted into the Norton-based liberal arts school.
“I was shocked. That’s not what I expected at all,” said Donahue, whose younger sister, Libby, captured on video the special occasion from the front steps of their home. “It was very heartwarming to see them all walk out of the car and come over and hand me my acceptance letter. I’m super excited. I’m stoked.”
In a move that set the school apart from other colleges looking to attract students to campus next year, dozens of officials from Wheaton College packed into 10 cars Tuesday to hand-deliver the good news to potential members of the class of 2020.
“This is a time when students are challenged to find the right fit among some very competitive offers from institutions,” said Grant Gosselin, Wheaton’s dean of admissions and student aid. “The more we can find ways to engage with them, and help them understand what the Wheaton College experience will be like for them, I definitely think it can impact an outcome.”
Donahue was one of 75 prospective Wheaton students who didn’t have to check their e-mail to find out if they were admitted to the school. Admissions letters were delivered to student hopefuls in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and parts of Maine.
Gosselin was one of the staff members dropping off the letters Tuesday in communities not far from the school’s campus. He was the driver of a Honda Pilot that was packed with the school’s president, Dennis M. Hanno, and mascot “Lyon” — not to mention other volunteers and several white and blue balloons.
Between their stops, the teams in each car would read aloud the profiles of the students they were preparing to surprise. They would later share photos of the students’ reactions on social media.
Kathy MacDonald, whose daughter, Emily, applied to Wheaton, said they were visited by Hanno, Gosselin, and the mascot.
MacDonald said the surprise threw a curve into the decision-making process, although Wheaton was one of her daughter’s top choices.
“If you want kids to come to your school, that’s the way to go. That’s the icing on the cake,” she said of the visit.
Gosselin said the idea to hand-deliver acceptance letters to students came from a similar campaign the school launched in 2014.
Wheaton officials picked one lucky student applicant from the bunch that year and then showed up at her high school to notify her that she had been accepted.
“The student is here now, and she still talks about that experience, and so many classmates recognize her from the video we did,” Gosselin said.
For Gosselin, the girl’s reaction was the highlight of his career, he said, so they decided to expand on the acceptance-letter stunt this year.
Gosselin said there were a variety of reactions to the deliveries on Tuesday. One girl asked for a hug. A second student begged her mother to take photos.
Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said the visits fall in line with Wheaton’s mission as a school.
“It’s a school that is smaller and more personalized, and they are able to provide an individualized learning environment for students,” Doherty said. “I don’t think it would work if that sort of wasn’t who Wheaton was as a school.”
Hanno, the school’s president, said every interaction was a positive experience, and a chance for the school to show potential students what Wheaton has to offer: a place where students are valued as individuals.
One of Hanno’s favorite deliveries was to a student in Wrentham, who was on her way to tae kwon do practice when the caravan of balloons arrived.
The student seemed thrilled by the grand gesture, he said.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing [her] on campus in the fall,” said Hanno.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.