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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Drive-Thru College Fair Lets Students And Schools Connect In Person Again

Emily Files
Student ambassadors, mascot Wolfie, and admissions employee staffed the Cardinal Stritch tent at the school's Oct. 3 drive-thru college fair.

This fall, students’ college decision-making process will look different. Some colleges are still doing in-person tours, but the coronavirus has shut down most face-to-face events.

Last weekend, Cardinal Stritch University found a way to bring back the in-person connection many high school seniors are looking for as they sort through college options: a drive-thru college fair. 

Around 10 a.m. Saturday morning, cars were turning off Port Washington Road onto the main drive surrounding the Cardinal Stritch campus in Glendale.

Tents advertising colleges were spread out along the route. The first was for Stritch. Three student ambassadors wearing masks stood ready to greet students.

“I just really like to help welcome students at Stritch, and helping them find their purpose and where they feel comfortable,” senior Maddie Stephens said. “I remember coming to Stritch my junior year of high school – I’m from Texas – and just immediately feeling the family vibe around campus.”

Visiting a campus and talking to people there is often an important factor in students’ college decisions. Recently, Stritch Director of Undergraduate Admissions Shaun Keating got an idea for how to do that in a socially-distanced way. He was inspired by the drive-thru food court at the Wisconsin State Fair last summer.

“Unfortunately a 2-foot-long corndog was the inspiration for this event,” Keating said. “Students really sometimes benefit from that one-on-one personal connection that you don’t necessarily get over Zoom or via phone call. So this is a great opportunity for us to connect with students.”

At Saturday’s drive-thru fair, 16 schools – most from southeast Wisconsin – made their pitch to families as they drove along.

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
A Marquette representative talks to prospective students at the Cardinal Stritch drive-thru college fair.

Milwaukee resident Steve Rios and his son, Steve Jr., stopped by Marquette University’s booth. They asked how ACT and SAT tests factor into admissions.

“Good question,” a Marquette representative said. “We actually went test-optional last summer, so you don’t have to submit a test score if you don’t want to.”

After talking with the Marquette staffers, the Rios’ talked to WUWM about why they decided to attend the college fair.

“I just wanted to get a general feel for college in Wisconsin and weigh my options a bit,” Steve Jr., a high school senior at Pius XI, said.

“Marquette is on dad’s list,” Steve Sr. chimed in.

Ashanti Jacobs and her mother, Tanya Hunter, drove from Waukegan, Ill., to check out the college fair.

“I just don’t want to regret my choice later on, so I want to find that college that’s like ‘yes, this is what I want to do,’ ” Jacobs said.

Cardinal Stritch, Mount Mary and Alverno were already at the top of Jacobs’ list. But Saturday, she added one new school to her options: George Williams College.

“It seems like they have a really good psychology program,” Jacobs said. “And when we were talking to the people down there, they seemed really nice. And that’s what I’m really looking forward to – a sense of community.”

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
George Williams admissions counselor Nick Comella and two current students greeted families at the drive-thru fair.

George Williams, a satellite campus of Aurora University of Illinois, is a tiny school in Williams Bay, on the shores of Lake Geneva. It’s a perfect example of a school that relies on in-person events to recruit students – because they don’t have the name recognition of bigger universities.

“That’s something we’re kind of struggling through, trying to get our name out there,” said George Williams admissions counselor Nick Comella. “So this drive-thru college fair has been a blessing, to have people come up and say ‘George Williams College, I’ve never heard of that school, can you tell us a little bit more?’ And we’re able to kind of tell them our story.”

Colleges are finding ways to tell their stories virtually, but admissions counselors say nothing can truly replace in-person visits and conversations with students.

Stritch Director of Undergraduate Admissions Shaun Keating says the school plans to host another drive-thru college fair in the spring, after a solid turnout of 75 vehicles at the Oct. 3 event.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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