Penn State Intercom......March 20, 2003

Prospective students use online chats to learn
about life and classes at Penn State

By Gary W. Cramer
Public Information

Although it only holds about 10 people comfortably, an otherwise unassuming room tucked away on the third floor of Shields Building on the University Park campus has on recent nights filled up with hundreds of prospective students looking for first-hand information about living and studying at Penn State. chat02

The physical impossibility is made possible in cyberspace through sophisticated chat room software that allows the prospective students -- high school students who have been offered admission to Penn State for 2003-04 -- to log in from wherever they may be during certain windows of opportunity arranged by the Undergraduate Admissions office. For up to five hours at a stretch, the fingers of student volunteers, known as Lion Scouts, and supervisory admissions counselors fairly fly across the keyboards as they answer incoming que chat01 stions in rapid-fire succession. The high school students are alerted to the upcoming chats via postcards and e-mail, and their questions range from the trivial to the pointed.

"A lot of the questions revolve around academics, class size, how do I know what to take-basic student life issues," said admissions counselor and chat moderator Jan Weyer. "They're very anxious about the student life situation here, not realizing that there are thousands of other prospective students in the same boat."

Penn State's chat session on Feb. 26 attracted 585 unique log ins from 27 states, the District of Columbia, 11 countries and Puerto Rico, which appears to be a record for both the University and for the dozens of other universities licensed to use the Chat University software, said admissions counselor Mike Stumbers. Only 11 of those who logged in that night were parents of prospective students, he added.

"When I logged off at midnight, about 15 prospective students were still online chatting away with two volunteers," he said.

At times, the Feb. 26 activity was so intense that extra volunteers had to be called up to answer questions from their residence hall rooms, and even as far away as Australia -- in the person of a student who's there as part of a study abroad experience. Although less hectic, a similar March 4 chat session still attracted heavy traffic and once again involved the Australia-based volunteer while Stumbers chimed in as needed to the University Park staff from a hotel room in Pittsburgh.

Since they began in May 2001, the chats have attracted several thousand visitors from 49 states and 51 countries.

"I have had kids enter into personal chats with me and tell me that they feel so much better about coming to Penn State, or that my answers have made them consider Penn State to be their top college choice," said Amanda Young, a senior in human development and family studies, and a Lion Scout participant since her freshman year. "The most important thing I try to convey to these students is that Penn State has an endless number of opportunities, and the only way you are truly going to have a rewarding collegiate experience is to grasp all of them."

For information on future chat sessions, including some intended for parents and international students, visit

Gary W. Cramer can be reached at