Taking things to a personal level

Nanette Tarbouni gets to know potential students as well as possible

Nanette Tarbouni did everything wrong when she looked for a college. Exams? Tarbouni took the ACT and the SAT once each — in her senior year of high school.

Visits? Nah, she didn’t see her new school until the day she moved into Tulane University.

Director of Undergraduate Admissions Nanette Tarbouni and Steve Frappier, associate director of admissions, go over some details regarding April Welcome festivities.
Director of Undergraduate Admissions Nanette Tarbouni and Steve Frappier, associate director of admissions, go over some details regarding April Welcome festivities.

So she knows exactly what to tell kids NOT to do when looking at prospective schools.

“We just weren’t very sophisticated when looking at colleges in the mid-’70s,” Tarbouni said. “All the advice I would never give, I was the example of.

“But maybe that tells us that there are lots of places people can be happy, and that’s one of the messages we try to convey to families.”

Tarbouni conveys messages to families just about every day of the year, but that’s just a small part of her role as director of undergraduate admissions.

From flying across the country to visit high schools to reading 12-page applications, from hosting prospective students visiting the campus to organizing events for guests, Tarbouni plays a big role in the makeup of the University, a role she’s played ever since graduating from Tulane.

Following her undergraduate years, she stayed on three years as an academic adviser in the dean’s office. Then, she moved to St. Louis.

“Of course there was nowhere you’d want to work in St. Louis except Washington U.,” she laughs, “but there were no openings at the time, late 1982.”

Nanette Tarbouni and her husband, Younasse, hope to take a trip to Morocco this year to visit his family.
Nanette Tarbouni and her husband, Younasse, hope to take a trip to Morocco this year to visit his family.

So she headed to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she again worked as an academic adviser, this time for just eight months.

“Then lo and behold, there was an advertisement in the paper for this job (admissions counselor), back in the days when you could actually find jobs in the paper,” she said. “I immediately applied and came to interview. I had done advising for 3-4 years; I thought I would do admissions for a couple of years and the next step would be to go to student services for a couple years and then settle on what I liked best.

“But this admissions thing just got in my blood, and I cannot leave!”

Which might sound odd to some, but not her colleagues in the admissions office. Tarbouni has stayed, and her efforts — and loyalty — are appreciated.

“It is so rare in the world of admissions that a person of Nanette’s talent would remain at one place for more than 20 years,” said John Berg, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate admissions. “She is well-respected by all who work with her — our staff colleagues and colleagues around the campus, as well as high school counselors in the U.S. and around the world.

“Every high school student and high school college counselor knows Nanette’s name. They know that she is a person of integrity. I have learned a great deal from her. She is a terrific colleague and friend.”

The friendship extends beyond just colleagues, though. Her personality is just part of what makes her an effective recruiter, which makes quite an impact on propsective students.

“She’s been wonderful to work with,” says Kathleen Jasper, a guidance counselor at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Mo. “She’s great with the kids, she’s an outstanding representative for Washington University and she’s never too busy to return a call or answer questions.”

Instead of looking at applicants as mere pieces of paper, Tarbouni and the rest of the admissions staff take the time to get to know each person as well as possible.

The applications start trickling in in October, and that’s when the relationship starts to form.

“Reading applications — even though there are more of them each year — is an absolute joy,” she said. “Every time you open up that file, you are meeting a new person, and it really feels like that. By the time you get to what they are doing outside the classroom — their essays, their recommendations — they really are distinctive, each and every one of them.

Nanette Tarbouni

Job title: Director of undergraduate admissions

Other role at WUSTL: Tarbouni is in her first year as a four-year adviser to undergraduates and has about five students she advises. “I’m seeing a whole different side of Washington U. from their eyes. It’s really given me a wider perspective — you do something for a long time and you think you know it, then you find out there’s this whole other part of the University that you weren’t thinking about because you were involved with your job.”

Secret addiction: “I watch way more TV than I should. I really am into 24, that would be my favorite show. And right now it’s really juicy!”

“I don’t think the students realize how attached we get to them. There have been times at orientation when I’ve run up to a student and said, ‘I’m so glad to finally meet you!’ and they look at me like ‘Who the heck are you?’ It’s sort of awe-inspiring how attached you can get from the 10-12 pieces of paper you get from them. It’s fascinating.”

Each year, Tarbouni has more and more friends to make through the application process.

About 20 years ago, the University received approximately 4,500 applications, and approximately 80 percent of them were admitted.

This year, the University received well over 21,500 applications and only 20 percent will be admitted.

That’s a huge step for a school once known as a “streetcar campus,” but according to Tarbouni, there are several reasons for these changes.

First and foremost is the changing demographic. More and more kids are graduating from high school, and more and more are heading to college. A study has shown that the boom will continue until around 2015, when college enrollment rates will start to decrease.

Another reason for increased awareness is the advent of rankings by national media.

“We can argue whether rankings are good or not,” Tarbouni says, “but one thing that is good is that they have raised the consciousness of parents and students in just thinking about college — thinking about going to college for some, and thinking about which college for others.”

Regardless of the reasons, admissions programs across the country are no longer in the back of prospective students’ (and parents’) minds.

“I can remember in the early years I’d get on the plane to be going to North Carolina, or Florida, and I’d start talking to my seatmate,” she said. “They say, ‘Well, what do you do?’ And I’d say that I work at Washington University. They’d come back with, ‘Oh, is that in Seattle? Well, what do you do? You work in admissions?… Well, what’s that?’

“Nobody asks ‘what’s that’ anymore.”

Much of the University’s success can be traced to the efforts of the admissions staff and Tarbouni.

And, much of Tarbouni’s personal success can be traced to the efforts of a former co-worker.

Jan Snow, a longtime friend and former colleague in admissions who now works at the Olin School of Business, had a friend she kept trying to set Tarbouni up with.

“Everyone knows how professional Nanette is, but not everyone knows what a fantastic person she is outside of the office,” Snow said. “We have been friends for over 20 years. When I think of Nanette, I think of words like dependable and reliable, but I also think of fun and party-planner extraordinaire.

“I think of someone who can whip up a mean jambalaya while she’s discussing all the nuances of 24 or Alias. I think of someone who would force me into going to a scary movie just because John Cusack was in it. I think of a friend who will always be there when needed. Everyone should have someone like Nanette in their corner.”

As such, Snow finally worked it so that her friend and Tarbouni attended the same party.

“She had been trying to fix us up for a long time,” Tarbouni laughs. “She kept bringing him by the office, and I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to meet anybody, I don’t want to get married.’ So finally we were at the same party together… and she was right. I owe her much of my happiness.”

Thanks in no small part to Snow, Tarbouni and her husband, Younasse — who teaches English as a second language at Saint Louis University — are going on seven years of marriage.

“He’s a very good teacher,” Tarbouni says. “He’s very patient and we balance each other, because he tells me I’m not (patient).

“And that’s true. I’m always asking, ‘Can I go on eBay and buy some patience?'”

But a lack of patience, increased application numbers — even the numerous steps heading up to Brookings Hall — they don’t mean a thing when you enjoy what you do.

“I just think I have the best job in the world,” Tarbouni says. “I feel so lucky, and I love working with all of my colleagues. I learn something every day.

“Where else can you work and be surrounded by bright, talented people, both in your own office and the greater University community? You can’t not learn something.”