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Updated 9:00 AM April 15, 2009

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Most amazing call: President reaches out to prospective students

It's a phone call that high school seniors always will remember, and one that leaves their parents truly impressed.
President Mary Sue Coleman calls high school seniors who are still deciding whether to attend Michigan next fall. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)
Ted Spencer, executive director of undergraduate admissions, right, speaks with Julia Glas, admissions call center supervisor, during President Mary Sue Coleman's calls to prospective freshmen. Also shown are Erica Sanders, director of recruitment and operations for admissions, left, and Vickie Crupper, associate director of student financial aid. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

"Hello, this is Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan." Then Coleman asks to speak to the student.

For those considering Michigan, a surprise call at home from the president is designed to show how much the university wants them. For Coleman and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, it's part of an ongoing effort to select a balanced mix of freshmen for next year.

"You're trying to pick. You're trying to make an outstanding class," Coleman says.

Coleman spent an hour-and-a-half Tuesday night personally reaching out to more than a dozen top high school seniors, many from underrepresented populations. The goal is a class — typically ranging between 5,300 to 5,600 students — that is academically, regionally, economically and ethnically diverse.

"We don't want everyone to be a cookie-cutter kind of kid," says Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions.

Coleman says such sessions — this was the third year in which she'll call about 60 students over several weeks — also help her understand how hard the admissions staff works to build a rounded student population.

"It gives me an appreciation of what these folks do," Coleman says, nodding to the admissions, financial aid and housing officials who joined her at the student phone-in center in the Student Activities Building. "Everybody thinks they know what Admissions does, but they really don't. It's very complex."

Sitting at a desk with a headset and a stack of papers outlining each applicant's background, interests and accomplishments, Coleman is prepared to personalize each call as much as possible.

Her first call Tuesday was to a young woman from Greenhills High School in Ann Arbor. The caller was thrilled just to receive Coleman's call, but when the president mentioned that less than a year ago she visited the same city in Ghana that the student's parents came from, the young woman's excitement was palpable.

"This is just the most amazing phone call," the student said.

The hook appeared set when Coleman told the prospect, who is interested in biomedical engineering, about Kathleen Sienko, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering who takes students on working trips to Ghana. "I do love Michigan," the young woman said. "Michigan has always been dear to my heart."

Coleman called families from as far away as the state of Washington and from as nearby as Ann Arbor. All the students have significant academic and extracurricular accomplishments. "The kids she talked to tonight are by design. Everyone wants these kids," Spencer says.

In some cases, the call is an attempt to seal the deal. For others, it's a pitch to get them on campus for the Amaizin' Blue Preview or Spring Welcome Day, both later this week. Calls go to admitted students who have not made a final decision, but who the university hopes to hear from by the May 1 enrollment deadline. They've been accepted; they've received their financial aid packages; and they are probably weighing competing offers.

"It's like football recruiting right now," Spencer says.

Consider this high school senior from Montclair, N.J. He's been offered a Shipman Scholarship and additional aid through LSA, essentially a full ride. "I can definitely see myself at Michigan," he tells the president. But he's not quite ready to commit.

Before calling her son to the phone, the young man's mother tells Coleman why: "I'm rooting for you, but he got into all 11 (schools where he applied), including four Ivies, so I just wanted you to know that going in."

"Sometimes it's more fun to talk to the parents," Coleman says later. Invariably, Mom and Dad are impressed by the top-level attention. One mother asks Coleman about her own family and they share a bit of parental small talk. It turns out the family just sent in the student's enrollment deposit. A sense of relief can be felt in the room at this news.

Coleman says the calls are fun, but there's an underlying sense of purpose, such as in the outreach to a student from Lahser High School in Bloomfield Hills. She's been offered a Shipman Scholarship but still isn't "100 percent sure" where she wants to attend college. "It's definitely one of my top choices," the young woman says of Michigan.

"I'm hoping that tonight I can convince you to make it your top choice," Coleman replies.

"I certainly hope I'm going to see you here in the fall."

Spencer says 80 percent of the students called by Coleman last year ended up coming to Michigan. This response last year from a St. Joseph student shows the impact Coleman's call made. The young woman now is a Michigan freshman.

"I felt so special that you reached out and called my home a few weeks ago. I think I dropped my phone when my mom told me I had a message from the president of Michigan," she told Coleman in an e-mail. "I think it's still saved on our voice mail."

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