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August 28, 2014

Making Pitt Work: Debbie Rupert

pitt workPitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 7,000 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, costume designers to biosafety officers,  photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

This is one in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.


Debbie Rupert

Debbie Rupert

One summer Saturday, a Pitt Pathfinder — current students trained to give tours to prospective students and their families — called Debbie Rupert in a panic at 8 a.m.

Rupert, senior director in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, already had been in Alumni Hall since about 5 a.m., making sure food and facilities were ready for the full day’s recruiting event, which can attract more than 2,400 people.

“They have shut down the Cathedral of Learning and we can’t take tours through,” the Pathfinder told Rupert.

The campus’s central showpiece was closed so that equipment could be hauled in for a charitable event that evening. “They were bringing in air conditioners while we were bringing in 1,800 people for tours,” Rupert recalls. Yet somehow she still wrangled permission to get her groups into the building.

“You should have been with me!” she says.

Rupert is in charge of the events that get students to visit, experience, apply and enroll to Pitt, everything from tours —offered on the hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday except during finals week and holidays — to the major summer events whose popularity recently has forced a switch of venue to Soldiers and Sailors Memorial.

Mishaps are not common, but they are memorable. On another Saturday morning, Rupert showed up before dawn at Alumni Hall to find Tennyson Avenue, the street where her tour buses wait, crammed with construction cranes, 18-wheelers and concrete barriers. She and her staff had everything moved or shifted in time for the tours to begin.

Another time she discovered a temporary stage from a previous event still crowding the floor where she had planned to seat 1,000 people. The outside vendor had not removed it — and it required a special dismantling tool.

Facilities Management couldn’t help, nor could the Pitt Police. Finally, Rupert called in a favor from a Pitt staffer who ran a contracting company on the side and had the right equipment on hand.

Families have wandered off Pitt bus tours and onto other tours and then had to be rescued by van. One time on a tour the father of a prospective student left the group on Mt. Washington to ride the Duquesne Incline and found them gone when he got back up; Rupert had to help him rejoin the Pitt tour. Tour groups get stuck in elevators. People fall down escalators or pass out. On a recent afternoon there were three attendees on crutches.

Rupert’s staff does everything from giving out 5,000 pairs of sunglasses for prospective students to distributing baby clothes and little T-shirts for the smallest family members in attendance.

“Or dogs,” she says. “Two months ago we put six-month-olds’ T-shirts on two little Chihuahuas. I tell the Pathfinders, this job will prepare you for anything in life, because you will experience everything. We always find a way to make it work.”

“So you want to be …”

On five Fridays in the summer, Rupert’s office runs full-day events called “So you want to be …,” geared to prospective students from specific schools. Rupert’s boss, chief enrollment officer Marc Harding, is the opening act for these events.

He really ought to be the headliner, because he kills. On a recent August morning he was utterly personable and funny as he interviewed students and egged on the parents to let their true feelings show: “Raise your hand if this is the one who empties the nest. There’s some rejoicing in the room!”

Harding dimmed the lights and showed a few hidden-image slides. When the crowd let out an “Ah…” at the realization that there were two dancers in what previously had seemed a Rorschach inkblot, Harding announced: “That sound is you connecting the dots that Pitt is the greatest college….”

He ended his presentation with a drawn-out but rapidly recited joke about a mother mouse who scares a cat from her “micelets” by barking like a dog. The punchline: “That, my children, is the value of learning a second language.”

“When you come to Pitt, I don’t care what you study, take advantage of everything,” he concluded.

Harding doesn’t introduce himself by title, to keep the event more welcoming, Rupert points out.

But the identities and experience of the rest of the presenters is crucial to communicating the Pitt experience to the crowded auditorium. They include two of Rupert’s staffers, one a recent grad and former Pathfinder, followed by a student panel and school officials. They all speak from experience about the factors students ought to consider when choosing a university, and explain the opportunities available at each Pitt school.

It takes 25 admissions staffers to plan and run each Friday/Saturday event, Rupert says, plus 40 Pathfinders to give the tours. For these weekend events, the tours start at 7 a.m. “Thirty-four went out at 7 a.m. on Saturday,” said Rupert, speaking on a recent August afternoon. “It’s amazing. It’s also smart,” since there are many school-centered panel discussions and other tours —individual schools, the upper campus and the City of Pittsburgh — offered each afternoon.

Last year, 7,179 people came to Pitt for the Friday and Saturday summer programs. By early this month, the events already had set a new record, with 12,698 attendees.

The funnel

Admissions officials like to refer to “funneling” students from vague interest to enrolling and attending. On four Saturday programs in the fall, Rupert says, “that’s where the funnel starts to come down a little, where you get students who are more interested in Pitt.”

Each fall Rupert also organizes a program to attract under-represented minorities. In addition, she produces five spring Saturday events for admitted students, plus two days focused on University Honors College opportunities. “We’re just trying to compete for their matriculation,” she says. “They love Pitt but they might love someplace else. We have to find that perfect fit for them.”

And there are special tours for younger high schoolers and educational sessions for guidance counselors flown to campus from areas of the country where Pitt most often recruits its out-of-state students.

One of the latest additions to the weekend recruitment events are spots for visitors to put their heads inside cut-outs and click a photo. There are a person-sized Cathedral of Learning, a football player, men and women basketball players, a cheerleader, a giant Pitt ID, a Pitt News front page and Pounce the Pathfinder Panther.

At the end of the event, when students fill out an application, the Pathfinders and staff all stop to ring bells and shake pompoms in celebration.

Preparing for the welcome onslaught

Every Monday, Rupert meets with her Admissions staff and Pathfinders, reviewing attendee survey comments from the past weekend’s programs.

“Every single week we will tweak something for the next Friday and Saturday,” she says. “Every so often you’ll get a crazy person who thinks you should have kept it from raining,” or who asks for more concrete benches outside buildings, she reports. But, mostly, the comments are helpful.

Heather Abrams, associate director of Admissions, assigns staffers and Pathfinders to the registration tables, deciding who is holding open what door and coordinating which Pitt colors each group will don that day.

“We meet a thousand times a week,” Rupert says. “Heather and I are stuck together all summer.”

Admissions staff members take top administrators on their tours to show them their own areas of responsibility through the eyes of visitors. It has helped get quick action on facilities that need upgrades or a good cleaning, she says.

Rupert has toured other schools incognito, but still believes Pitt does its tours best: “The Pathfinders are the key.”

Joining the 130-member Pathfinder group is “very, very competitive,” she says. Only 60 of 600 applicants are accepted each year, and they are put through more than three months of intensive training. Each summer, about 40 of them stay on campus in the Towers and work recruitment tours and PittSTART orientations.

Rupert says she tells the Pathfinders: “When you speak to a family, you speak from the heart. Even if you had a bad experience you have to be honest. Just put a positive spin on the experience.”

Surveys show that Pathfinders do have a positive influence on family impressions, she reports. “Families know that staff are paid … whereas Pathfinders are closer to the experience and they’re very honest with their comments.”

“I always say to parents, remember the first time you fell in love? Don’t go anywhere you don’t get that feeling in your tummy.”

She fondly recalls a practice of former Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, and wonders aloud whether new Chancellor Patrick Gallagher will do the same: “Nordenberg used to have a habit of popping in on tours. Families went crazy. I’m hoping Gallagher will do the same. We’ve already picked summer of ’15 dates.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 1