By Angela Leibowicz
For quite a while, the admissions Web site for the University of Pittsburgh gave observant Jewish high school students no reason to put Pitt on their short lists for colleges to attend.
Haliel Selig decided to do something about that.
After starting work in 2003 at the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at Pitt, she got the idea to reach out to prospective Jewish students. She also helped develop a new series of Web pages that specifically appeal to Jews.
Today, Chai'R Learning - www.admissions.pitt.edu/higher_learning/ - is a reality.
The Web pages are part of a greater effort by Pitt and nearby Carnegie Mellon University to reach out to Jewish students. This year, both schools began serving kosher meals on campus, making them stronger options for observant high school seniors.
A Greensburg/Squirrel Hill native, Selig looked at fertile recruiting grounds for observant Jewish students - New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts - and started making visits to day schools to spread the word about Pitt.
Increased visibility and positive word of mouth meant more interest from prospective students and parents, according to Betsy Porter, director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Pittsburgh. The staff, she explained, found that they were frequently responding to similar questions about Jewish life on campus.
"Aligning of the sun, the moon and the stars," is how this all came together for Pitt, Porter said. Selig was new to the admissions office and Aaron Weil was the new executive director at Hillel Jewish University Center. The day school recruiting produced positive results: increased interest in Pitt and more questions for the admissions staff to answer about Jewish life on campus. As with any area of interest that generates frequently asked questions, she explained, the Office of Admissions published a brochure and fully supported the addition to its Web site.
At the same time, Hillel Jewish University Center wanted more Jewish students to enroll so that a case could be made to the university to offer kosher meals on campus, Selig said.
Adam Donnell, a Pitt junior from Connecticut who interned for a semester in the Admissions office, working with Selig, played an active role in the development of the Chai'R Learning Web pages. A Pitt Pathfinder - Pitt students who assist the admissions office with recruitment - he also belongs to a group of Jewish students within the Pathfinders who talk to prospective students.
While Donnell was researching colleges he might attend, he was unimpressed with Pitt. It was hard to track down information about Jewish life there. When he connected with Selig, she put him in touch with enrolled Jewish students who helped him gather information.
Now he is doing the same for incoming students.
The Chai'R Learning Web pages also make it easier for college counselors at day schools to guide students to Pitt.
Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion Station, Pa., in the Philadelphia area, can now refer students to Pitt, according to Carol Jacobs, their director of college guidance.
"There is great interest in the University of Pittsburgh because of the vibrant Jewish community on campus, synagogues, Hillel, and kosher food on campus," Jacobs said - in part because state schools are more affordable.
Word is getting out about Pitt, Jacobs continued. Four students from last year's senior class at Akiba are enrolled at Pitt, she said. Out of this year's 57 seniors, 23 students have applied.
Many students and parents do not know much about Pitt, she said, but when they come back from a visit, the response is "Wow, this place is awesome."
Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh.