The college campus tour. It’s a genuine rite of passage for many high school juniors and seniors.
But like so many other milestones and traditions over the past few months, college tours have largely been postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rabbi Dena Shaffer, executive director of 4Front, a community-wide initiative for local Jewish teenagers, believes teens and their families shouldn’t have to miss out on the college tour experience.
That’s why 4Front, which is supported by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and managed by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, will offer a “Virtual College Road Trip” through the entire month of June. The program features student-led college campus tours, informational sessions with school administrators and Hillel leaders, question-and-answer sessions, workshops and other resources.
“We were looking for meaningful and compelling programs that could replace this rite of passage that has suddenly become ‘completely unattainable,’” says Rabbi Shaffer. “So we partnered with a program called JumpSpark [a Jewish community teen initiative based in Atlanta].”
While high school students can visit college campuses virtually, she says, “Zoom fatigue is real, so we wanted to give our virtual college tours a more immersive feel. We wanted it to feel a little special to mark a really important moment in a young person’s life.”
Rabbi Shaffer says the “Road Trip” will feature current students at more than 30 colleges and universities to serve as virtual “bus drivers.”
“The students will be taking over our social media accounts for a day,” she says. “They’ll be sharing their own campus stories and experiences, uploading their road trip playlists and giving their real-life perspectives on what it’s like to attend their colleges.”
Rabbi Shaffer notes that students who attend local colleges will provide live onsite tours of their campuses that will resemble the type of visits that prospective students would typically receive.
In addition to presentations by college students, “Road Trip” participants will have ample opportunities to hear from college admissions counselors, administrators and Hillel professionals from each school.
Among the presenters will be Noam Bentov, director of the Johns Hopkins University Hillel. He says JHU’s Jewish community is “small but mighty” and consists of approximately 500 students. “Hillel is an integral part of the university,” Bentov says. “We have very robust Jewish opportunities. We have everything to do with Jewish culture — Jewish ritual, holidays, social justice. We also have a daily minyan, three trips to Israel a year, free Shabbat dinners every Friday night for 100-150 students. It’s incredible!”
The “Road Trip” participants will also hear about Jewish life on campus from their student “bus drivers,” says Rabbi Shaffer.
“All of the bus drivers will spend part of their days sharing Jewish experiences on campus,” she says. “At 4Front, we talk to teens in a way that fully integrates Judaism so teens see Judaism as holistic, portable and integral to how they see the world. The college process is no different.”
In addition to a seminar titled “Thinking of Jewish Identity Away from Home,” workshops will cover such topics as financial aid, curating a college list, preparing for the college application and coping with the college admissions process during the pandemic.
“We will also talk about the parents’ role in the process,” says Rabbi Shaffer. “For instance, should you write your child’s essay? The answer is no!”
The “Virtual College Road Trip” is free, but attendees should register at roadtriptocollege.org when the website goes live on May 28 or May 29. The program will launch on May 31 with a webinar for parents and children titled “Family’s Guide to Getting in and Staying Together.”
“It’s based on the premise that the college admissions process is stressful and can sometimes pit parents against kids. But this should be a fun experience,” says Rabbi Shaffer. “4Front has always tried to embrace innovation, and this is another way to provide resources to families at a unique moment in their lives and in the life of the country.”
For information, visit http://roadtriptocollege.org.