Sam Fansler ’13 walks backwards along the cobblestone brick pathway that stretches behind the Wren Building and turns to parallel the deep cavity on campus known as the Sunken Garden.
As a tour guide for the admissions office, student worker since her freshman year, and now an intern, Fansler has practiced these steps and recited gobs of information about William & Mary hundreds of times to countless faces.
She doesn’t miss a beat, though she is keenly aware of the cracks along the way.
Wednesday’s tour around the brightly foliaged campus on a crisp fall day was unlike any other Fansler has given. It was the first time she – or any student guide – has completed a tour in a foreign language.
Forty-eight middle school students from Sainte Jeanna d’Arc Catholic School in Southern France stood on the sidewalk along Jamestown Road awaiting Fansler. Like her students, teacher Martha Gomot was excited to meet Fansler.
Student tour guides, such as Fansler, are the College’s primary ambassadors to the public. They serve more than 25,000 visitors each year who come to explore the campus. Local company Illuminations Cultural Experience facilitates student groups like Sainte Jeanne d’Arc to bring schools from Europe to Williamsburg.
“I wanted these students to come to America so that they can see how American universities differ from those in France, said Gomot.
The French education system if very different – high school teachers place students in one of three tracks based on their academic achievement: science/math, economics or literature. Most students who attend college don’t live on campus – they just go to school.”
“There’s a real social element missing, which is sad,” Gomot said.
Fansler, who is fluent in French, was excited to share a language with others in which she endears so much. She began French immersion school in kindergarten and went all the way up to eighth grade before transferring to an American high school in Chicago. While in high school she earned her French baccalaureate degree. Two summers ago she studied abroad in Montpellier, South France, and immersed herself in a culture whose language she has mastered.
Fansler says not only was the language for this tour different, so too was her approach.
“I want to make it fun for them and show the students that William & Mary is fun,” she said. “That you can go to a university and do other things outside of class.”
The first destination on their journey was a stop at the iconic Wren Building. The group huddled in a half moon pattern beneath the white steps as Fansler explained how the structure is the oldest building on campus. Thomas Jefferson once took classes inside, she tells them.
“Remember the statue we saw earlier today?” Gomot questions her pupils. “That is the man -- Thomas Jefferson.” Her students perk up and echo “Thomas Jefferson.”
Gustaf, 12, was one of two students from the group who speaks English. He was taken aback by the aesthetic beauty and colonial architecture on campus.
“It’s very pretty,” he said. “I would love to go to William & Mary. I think it’s one of the most ancient universities.”
The second stop was outside Blair Hall, which now houses the president’s office, explained Fansler. Classes are taught in these buildings, she pointed out, such as history and philosophy, two of many academic majors the College offers.
In the Tyler Garden, the students were wary of the surprise echo spot Fansler showed them. At first, they didn’t believe it could be true. But then a boy stepped up and said “Bonjour.”
His face was overcome with astonishment as he turned to his peers. Students rushed to the spot and Gomot instinctively intervened to let each student take a turn, one at a time.
Student after student repeated the favorite phrase of the day: J’aime Williamsburg – or, “I love Williamsburg.”
After experiencing the echo wall and hearing how students play campus golf in their leisure time, the students began to warm up to Fansler.
They pingged her with questions: how do I get into William & Mary? How much does it cost? What does my moyenne score need to be? Under the French higher education system, students are admitted to certain schools based on their moyenne score.
Fansler, 21, patiently explained how American universities are different. In France, anyone with a high school baccalaureate degree can go to a university for free, but not so in America, she said.
“Entrance into William & Mary is based on all sorts of factors outside of your academic history,” she informed the visitors. “It also costs thousands of dollars to attend a university.”
One student asked Fansler if smoking is allowed on campus. Others wanted to know what activities she participates in outside of class.
Inside the Sadler Center, Fansler showed the group where concerts take place at Lodge 1 and the common dining hall on the third floor. She stopped in front of the Crim Dell and told the tale of walking across the bridge either with – or without someone – and what that means for your future. On the first floor in the Swem Library, students walked through the stacks as Fansler explained how the media center is used to create videos and CDs. She quietly enlightened the middle schoolers on the different noise levels in the library as W&M students looked up from their textbooks and laptops.
Fansler ended the tour at the Wren Building, standing in front of the Lord Botetourt statue. After walking backwards for over an hour and simultaneously speaking French, she said she’s thankful for the opportunity.
“I think it’s so cool that I can use my French for a practical purpose. I’m a European Studies major, so this is my dream; I love it.”