Jan. 5, 2009 — Parke Muth was starting to get a bad feeling as the stacks of paper mounted.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Officially, the University of Virginia had gone to a "paperless" admission system, with online applications and a sophisticated new software system to manage them.
But from where Muth stood in the Office of Admission, where he works as a senior assistant dean, there certainly seemed to be a whole lot of paper piling up.
Most of the system was working as designed. What hadn't been entirely accounted for, however, were the school transcripts, teacher recommendations and other "supplemental" material that were arriving the old-fashioned way: printed on paper and dropped in the mail.
The paper has to be unstapled, and the applicants' names written on each sheet. Then they have to be scanned into a computer. The average school packet is about 10 pages, although some eager applicants send up to 100 sheets.
Add in that the University may be on the verge of a record year for applications, and that the budget for temporary workers to help with the crush had been zeroed out with the shift to the "paperless" system, and it's easy to see why Muth was beginning to fret.
The admissions deans "had to open the mail a few days because we saw we were already getting behind," he said. "I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was going to take longer than I thought."
Clearly, he needed some volunteer help. His first thought was making an appeal to local students, but he knew that they jealously craved their "couch time" and time spent hanging out with friends.
Then came an inspired idea: As the office's international admissions expert, he knew that many Chinese students had chosen to not return home over the winter break, mainly because of the approximately $1,700 price of a plane ticket. He sent out a message to the Mainland Student Network e-mail list and asked if any students might be interested in helping out for a few hours over the break.
As of late this week, 15 students had volunteered, and some had already put in several hours.
"These students are providing an invaluable service to our office," senior associate dean Greg Roberts said. "At this time of year, it's all-hands-on-deck around here. We are grateful for their efforts and appreciate their contribution to our office and the University."
Beyond the occasional free pizza, Muth said, "We have no money to give. It's all out of the goodness of their hearts."
One student signed up for a week's worth of 9-to-5 shifts. When Muth stressed that there was no pay involved, the student replied, "Oh, no, I owe it to the University. The University has been very good to me.'"
"It's just a great experience," said Xinye Liu, a first-year student who plans to major in chemistry. "I'd like to help Mr. Parke Muth."
She plans to work up to 15 hours before a Christmas trip to New York and Philadelphia, and then put in three or four hours a day during early January, she said.
Betty Xiong, a third-year double majoring in economics and math, had prior experience helping admissions officers conduct phone interviews with applicants in China.
"It was really a wonderful experience, and I enjoyed a lot talking on the phone with native Chinese speakers in English on behalf of the University," she said. "I consider this an honorable experience."
The students' volunteer efforts will help hasten the time when admissions deans "head into the tunnel," as Muth put it, of three months' worth of seven-day workweeks spent reading applications.
These international students will also receive a crash course in the American education system, Muth noted.
Clearly, though, the Office of Admission will receive the greater benefit. Roberts estimated that 300 hours of volunteer work would save at least $4,000 in charges for office temporaries.
"Any help we get is appreciated," Muth said. "These students seem very happy to do this, and they want to give something back to the University."