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To woo academic recruits, college makes them stars

Justin Chung knew Wilkes University wanted him when he got one of its first acceptance letters in February. But he didn't know how badly until he saw the mall kiosk with his name on it.

"It's like I'm famous," says Justin Chung, at a Penndel pump with a Wilkes ad featuring him. (Michael Bryant/Inquirer)
"It's like I'm famous," says Justin Chung, at a Penndel pump with a Wilkes ad featuring him. (Michael Bryant/Inquirer)Read more

Justin Chung knew Wilkes University wanted him when he got one of its first acceptance letters in February. But he didn't know how badly until he saw the mall kiosk with his name on it.

And the pizza boxes.

And the commercial on MTV and VH1.

"Justin Chung of Council Rock South. As a weightlifter, you never push your limits without a spotter to help. Wilkes University feels the same way about your education. (We just use less talc.)"

The shout-out is part of a quirky advertising campaign targeting eight high-achieving seniors who were accepted to the relatively small liberal arts university in Wilkes-Barre but had not yet made up their minds.

"It's like I'm famous," the Richboro, Bucks County, teen said at Neshaminy Mall, where he works at the Hollister Co. clothes store, around the corner from a kiosk with his name in foot-high letters. "The girls like it."

This is the season when colleges pull out all the stops to woo students whom they have accepted but who are undecided about which school to attend. Prospective students are feted with sleepovers, concerts and parties. Even professors get into the act, working the phones to try to persuade those still on the fence by the May 1 deadline.

Wilkes has pursued Chung and the other students with the kind of star-making attention usually bestowed on big-name college athletes.

Not only does the campaign play into young people's love of celebrity, but it is designed to make people curious about the school of about 2,300 students, which prides itself on mentoring and personal attention.

"It's hard to get people to know about your school if you're not one of the large state systems or Ivy League," said Jack Chielli, Wilkes' director of marketing and media relations. "If you're in between those two, you really have to work hard to get the word out."

Chung, 17, a wrestler with a 3.4 grade-point average who is not sure what he wants to study, said his phone rang nonstop the first weekend the ads went out last month.

And while no one has asked for his autograph yet, a woman and her daughter walked by and waved as he stood by his blue-and-white sign in the mall. "Hi, Justin," said Lisa Hansbury of Bensalem, with 5-year-old Olivia. "I've been reading about him."

Kristen Pecka, 18, who attends Allentown Central Catholic High School, did have a parent ask for her signature at a softball game.

"I had no clue when they said I was going to be on a billboard that it was going to be so big and on two major streets" - Routes 22 and 309 - "in the Lehigh Valley," said the future nurse-anesthetist, who works part-time for a physical therapist.

Even more startling was the call she got from her neighbor, who saw one of her ads on the screen at the local movie theater.

"Hey Kristen Pecka. One of your closest friends at Central Catholic calls you Pecka-lecka-lecka. Choose Wilkes University and add 2,362 more people to the list."

"It's been great," she said. "A couple of days of fame."

In addition to billboards, the ads turn up in places that reflect youthful love of gossip, meaning a big presence online, including as well as two college sites, and

In a creative twist, the ads are also plastered on pizza boxes from local pizzerias and atop pumps at select gas stations.

The biggest thrill for teens may be seeing their names flashed on MTV and VH1.

"I'm really impressed with their creativity," said Briana Turnbaugh, 17, a senior at Hazleton Area High School. "It makes me feel they care about each of their students."

"Briana Turnbaugh. You listen to Kanye rap about the Good Life. Let Wilkes University help you actually get it. (Now throw your hands up in the sky.)"

The campaign, which was launched last year, was created by the Philadelphia agency 160over90, which interviewed the selected students to find out their activities, interests and college plans so it could personalize the ads.

"We asked the students to tell us about the popular places in their town for teens to see a movie, shop and eat pizza," said Darryl Cilli, the agency's executive creative director. "Then we were able to hand-pick where ads should be placed so they would be seen by the most number of students."

The school wanted not only to differentiate itself from, say, the nearby University of Scranton or Pennsylvania State University, but also to look into the way students communicate. Nearly every youth sends text messages and has a MySpace page, so word-of-mouth is how they relate, Chielli said.

The buzz has pushed enrollment this year beyond the school's goal of 572 students to 630. And the college's yield, or the percentage of accepted students who decided to attend Wilkes rather than another school, rose 4 percent.

"It's been phenomenal. We've landed the largest class we've ever had in our history," Chielli said.

The campaign costs Wilkes $210,000. With the bump in enrollment bringing in about $1 million more in revenue, "we think that's a pretty good return on the investment," he said.

Wilkes selected students who had good academic records and who would fit into the university, where tuition is about $24,000 a year. A few have been offered scholarships. Last year, only one of the six targeted celeb-udents went to another school. But netting students may be less important than getting out the message that Wilkes is a place that values human interaction.

That's what drew Pecka. A cousin who attends Wilkes told her that teachers were friendly and interested in their students. Alas, Pecka has decided to go to the University of Scranton because of its nurse-anesthetist program.

"I feel bad. I feel really bad," she said.

Chung, who has been accepted at Temple and Drexel Universities, is also unsettled. But if he decides to major in pharmacology, he said, he will go to Wilkes because it has a good program.

Turnbaugh, a top student with an SAT of 1340, ranked fifth in her class and with numerous activities under her belt, has gotten full scholarship offers from other schools. Which means her final decision will come down to how much Wilkes puts on the table rather than on her billboard.

"If they give me a full scholarship," said the future corporate lawyer, "I would definitely go there."