Fresh out of college and newly in the workforce, I recently found myself doing the last thing I expected to do in my young professional life: taking a college tour.
But this tour of Harvard University was distinctly different from those I’d taken as a nervous high school student. There were no jittery teenagers or overeager parents, no chatter about SAT scores. This was Harvard, — or Hahvahd in the local vernacular — not as dream college, but as tourist attraction.
“It’s been on my bucket list,” said Annette Gray of Sydney. “I did Machu Picchu a few weeks ago.”
Asked to compare the two, her companion, Marinko Tulich quipped, “It’s flatter.”
The Hahvahd Tour, first developed by Harvard student Daniel Andrew in 2006, calls itself an unofficial tour of the university. While the tour now has a friendly relationship with the university — it conveniently ends at university-sponsored gift shops — it once clashed with the school over its use of the Harvard brand. Harvard actually received a trademark for the word “Hahvahd,” which it now licenses to the tour group, Andrew told me.
“They played hardball, but also they were fair,” Andrew said of the negotiations with Harvard administrators. “They would even laugh sometimes and say, ‘We taught you too well.’ ”
Andrew was a guide for the official Harvard tour before he and a friend launched their own tour company, now called Trademark Tours. The tour is now available every day of the year, with groups leaving every 30 minutes between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in the summer. Tickets start at $9.95 for a 70-minute general tour. A private tour for up to 20 people is $250, and tours are also available in other languages for an additional fee.
The tour continues to be popular, confirming Andrew’s suspicion there was untapped demand for Harvard tourism.
“We made the tour more of an interactive experience that you would enjoy on vacation,” he said.
This was a new concept to me. I’d never taken a college tour without the immediate intention of applying there. My main memories of college tours involve knowing looks with my parents that either signalled “This could work,” or “Run!”
Victor Cheng and Yoon-Hee Cha of Tulsa, Okla., brought their young kids along, but weren’t interested in vetting college prospects just yet.
“They’re just thinking about when their next playdate is,” Cheng said.
His 9-year-old daughter, Karissa, said she didn’t know much about Harvard before the tour. She knew the name, though.
“I’ve heard my dad mention it once or twice before,” she said.
Of the roughly 40 people on the tour, most were adult couples, many from far-flung locales. There appeared to be no high school students.
The tour covers Harvard history, culture, and famous graduates, and focuses more on campus lore and clever jokes than when to declare a major or how you are placed with your freshman year roommate.
My tour guide, Rachel Kahn, class of 2020, is one of about 100 undergraduates who work for the tour. She explained that one of the secrets of the John Harvard statue is that it wasn’t actually modeled after him, since all images of the school’s namesake burned in a fire.
One theory is that the statue was fashioned after former Harvard president Leonard Hoar. Rather than name a college house after a man named Hoar, as tradition held, Harvard chose to create the statue in his likeness, according to campus legend.
Another tale surrounds Widener Library. When alumnus Harry Widener died on the Titanic, his mother wanted to donate millions of dollars to build a library at Harvard in his honor.
“Harvard thought about this really long, probably about two to three seconds,” Kahn joked to the tour.
They even pledged to knock down the current library to build the new one. Hearing their eagerness, Widener’s mother was concerned administrators would replace the library when another donor came along, Kahn said. So she gave the money on the condition that the building not be altered.
To sidestep the requirement, Harvard has expanded the library several floors below the surface, she said.
“The building you see in front of you is really just the tip of the iceberg,” Kahn said, drawing a mix of groans and laughter at the Titanic pun.
After the tour, Kahn told me she chose to work for the Hahvahd Tour over the official campus tour because she wanted to meet people from around the world and have the freedom to move off-script on campus topics. Plus, unofficial tour guides are allowed to accept tips.
Kahn said she still gets asked about her grades and what made her stand out to Harvard admissions officers, but controversies, like the school’s decision to ban final clubs, rarely come up.
“If I were doing an admissions tour, I would get asked about that every day,” Kahn said.
Among her biggest surprises about the tours? Just how much people care about her school.
“When you’re a student applying for college, you’re mostly just thinking of, ‘Oh, the admissions rate is so small, how am I going to get in? I need to do X, Y, and Z so that I can even apply,’ ” Kahn said. “Most people don’t think of it in that specific way. It’s just a huge name, and people come from everywhere to tour this place where I go to school every day.”