Surbhi Bharad, Senior Photographer

In a Thursday afternoon announcement detailing Yale College’s policy updates in response to SCOTUS’s decision against race-based affirmative action, Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan expressed their desire to “increase the reach” of the Yale Ambassador program. 

The ambassador program, a nearly 20-year-old initiative of Yale’s undergraduate admissions office, pays selected students to visit high schools in their home areas and speak to prospective students about life at Yale. Its mission is to mobilize current students to inform high schoolers about affordability at Yale, according to Mark Dunn ’07, the senior associate director for outreach and recruitment at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and director of the program from 2012 until 2020.

The News spoke to student ambassadors and members of the admissions office to understand how the program has evolved since its founding in 2005 and how it plans to expand over the coming year.

“The program is a great way to engage undergraduates, and it’s a great way to cover more ground in the country, visit more schools and talk to more students and families than any one admissions staff possibly could,” said Quinlan, who created the program in 2005 when he served as Director of Outreach and Recruitment for the admissions office. “But I think now is a really good opportunity for us to continue to expand the number of students, families and communities that we reach. Yale students are great ambassadors for this college, so using them has always been a huge, huge advantage.”

In its early years of operation, Dunn said, the program reached between 150 and 200 high schools while engaging approximately 100 student ambassadors. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, the program had expanded to reach over 800 high schools, with about 300 Yale students involved in the program.

Dunn explained that College Board’s Landscape tool — which offers place-based, race-neutral data about applicants — has been used by the admissions office to inform outreach since 2019, and the information it provides has been helpful in growing the program.

“That growth was largely driven by data,” Dunn said. “By having better data on available high schools and being able to triangulate students toward those high schools, we have been able to just simply assign more high schools to more students”

The ambassador program is very important during this year’s application process, according to Corinne Smith, associate director of undergraduate admissions and current director of the program.

The program hopes to expand its reach to both rural and small towns as well as major metro areas, Smith told the News.

“Geographic diversity is more important to our process than ever,” Smith wrote in an email to the News. “Our efforts over the past 15+ years have proven that peer-to-peer outreach is incredibly effective. It’s the admissions office’s hope that this year’s Ambassadors will visit even more schools around the country, specifically in places where sharing their experiences and information about Yale’s affordability will be highly impactful.”

Rhayna Poulin ’25, a student ambassador from rural Maine, told the News that she was the first person from her area to go to Yale. Emmitt Thulin ’25, an ambassador from Downers Grove, IL, a suburb of Chicago, said that he was unaware of anyone else from his high school who has ever been admitted to Yale.

Both students said they were drawn to the program as a way of helping students from similar backgrounds realize their potential to thrive at Yale.

“I got involved in the program because I thought it would be a cool thing to go back to schools in my area and talk to kids that didn’t think that going to Yale was possible for them or even worth considering,” Poulin said. “A lot of people from my area just don’t even think it’s worth it to apply.”

After they are selected, new ambassadors meet with admissions officers and experienced ambassadors, where they are informed of how to speak to prospective students and topics to cover and avoid, according to Poulin.

After their initial onboarding, ambassadors are assigned a list of schools — usually all within an hour of their hometown — to contact, Poulin said. She added that, over University recesses, ambassadors visit these schools in person, leading information sessions for prospective students interested in or curious about Yale.

Poulin visited three schools during winter recess and another three during spring break, she told the News. After each visit, ambassadors are required to fill out a form to return to the admissions office summarizing their visit — in her forms, Poulin detailed the number of students who attended her sessions, what student feedback was like and whether she thought Yale should send another ambassador to a school in the future.

Among the topics ambassadors are encouraged to cover in their sessions are student life, academics and extracurriculars at Yale, Poulin and Thulin said. The only topics they recall being required to discuss during their visits, even if students do not inquire about them, are financial aid and affordability.

“I think it’s really good that we’re required to talk about it,” Thulin said. “A common conception among some students is that you have to be in this upper echelon of wealth to be able to go to an Ivy League institution, or really any college for that matter. So I think it’s important that academically competitive students know that financial aid won’t be a hindrance to their ability to get into a school like Yale.”

Dunn confirmed the program’s emphasis on financial aid and affordability, saying that it is not optional for ambassadors to discuss financial aid during their school visits. 

Because the program’s central mission is to maintain transparency surrounding Yale’s affordability, he told the News in an email, all ambassadors are required to undergo training in covering need-based financial aid.

Challenges with engagement

While both Poulin and Thulin reflected positively on the school visits they made, detailing enthusiastic students and welcoming counselors and teachers, both experienced challenges with engagement. 

“The schools I was assigned definitely weren’t all responsive,” Poulin said. “I’d sometimes call and leave a message, and the school would never get back to me. There were definitely a few schools that I was able to get in contact with, but that I wasn’t able to schedule a visit to due to the dates of school breaks.”

But even when she was able to visit a school, there were sometimes very few students who showed up to her sessions, Poulin said.

At her own high school, no students showed up to her information session. At another school visit, only two students attended. But she also had sessions attended by more than 30 students.

She attributed this large range partly to how well her visit was publicized by each high school — the schools where she got the least engagement tended to not advertise her visit, or advertised it only to seniors. But she also pointed to the existing attitudes among certain school communities as impacting the success of her ambassador work.

“I think the schools where I got the most kids were definitely the more affluent schools, with more affluent student bodies, where students already probably have a little bit of interest in a school like Yale,” Poulin said. “There’s just a kind of lack of interest in the more rural, less affluent areas like the area I grew up in. And it’s hard to create interest in places where Yale is something kids haven’t been exposed to or think they can’t have.”

Dunn told the News that the admissions office is not able to do much to directly increase student turnout at visit or responsiveness from schools, adding that this is an obstacle commonly faced by admissions officers when directing outreach.

The admissions office does encourage students to be persistent when reaching out to high schools, and also mails out posters promoting visits to participating schools, according to Dunn.

“We know that not every assigned school will receive a visit, or that every scheduled visit will connect with prospective students, but by assigning more schools and engaging more ambassadors we are able to extend our reach to more students and more school communities,” Dunn wrote in an email to the News.

Poulin said her most impactful visits were to schools in the “middle” — those between very affluent communities where Poulin saw the highest attendance and very rural areas where there was less interest.

According to Poulin, these types of visits typically garnered between 10 and 15 students, most of whom had never met an Ivy League student and all of whom seized the opportunity to learn more about Yale.

“Just getting kids in the room is a cultural barrier,” Poulin said. “But once they’re there, you can see a visible reaction in people when you tell them the stats that we’re supposed to kind of drive home. Stuff like, ‘this is the percentage of students that get aid,’ or ‘this is how much the average student pays,’ or ‘if your family makes under this amount, Yale is free’. Once students are in the room, financials make a big difference. But I think getting them there is tough.”

Students in Yale’s class of 2027 attended 1,224 different high schools.

Molly Reinmann covers Admissions, Financial Aid & Alumni for the News. Originally from Westchester, New York, she is a sophomore in Berkeley College majoring in American Studies.