Groggy from his cross-country plane ride, Chris Barrett emerged alone from the airport shuttle onto Pepperdine University's sunny Malibu campus dressed in flip-flops, baggy shorts and an unbuttoned dress shirt.
He parked his oversize suitcase at the orientation check-in table and flashed a camera-ready smile at a pair of student counselors. Barrett's confident expression wavered momentarily as he sifted through the day's itinerary and directions to his new dorm. "I think he's a little overwhelmed," one counselor said to the other.
"It all happened really fast," Barrett said, sizing up his new campus by the beach. It was just 10 months ago that the New Jersey student and his childhood pal Luke McCabe, both 18, pitched themselves as "spokesguys" for any corporation willing to fund their higher education. Now, Barrett is at Pepperdine, and McCabe soon will be a freshman at USC--thanks to First USA Bank. The bank and the students claim this is a first for such a sponsorship.
In between classes, the two will wear clothing with First USA Bank logos and speak with students about establishing credit and managing their money. In exchange, the mammoth credit card issuer has agreed to pay each $40,000 for one year's tuition, room, board and student fees.
The boys came up with the novel idea last summer when they were interns for publicist Karen Ammond of the small independent firm KBC Media Relations near their home. McCabe, son of a construction worker and a dental assistant, and Barrett, whose parents work in advertising and labor relations, were considering colleges in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York City. They worried about the high expense--each school costs as much as $35,000 per student, per year.
The California schools were their first choices, because being 3,000 miles away from home "gives us a different perspective on life, I guess," Barrett said casually. Not to mention it's one of the largest media markets in the country.
The two, who were star high school students in the affluent town of Haddonfield, N.J., launched their marketing blitz with a Web site, http://chrisandluke.com. The site featured a series of snapshots of the boys in various locations wearing "Your Name Here" T-shirts.
Then, working with the publicist, their parents and a business consultant, the boys presented themselves as clean-cut, but clever, kids with a win-win idea.
"In some ways, they're almost the perfect fit for this," said Joseph Serico, principal of Haddonfield Memorial High School. The students both served as class officers and earned high grades. At age 6, Barrett patented "feet stickers," small adhesives placed on a child's shoe to help identify the right from left. In high school, he wrote an Internet manual, "How to Get Into Concerts for Free," and won national marketing awards.
McCabe toured the East Coast as lead singer and guitarist with a pop/punk band called Big Fat Huge. He managed the Anti-Racism Assn. for South Jersey. At graduation, he won a special award for maintaining an A average during all four years of high school.
During their senior year, the students juggled media appearances all over the country between exams, the prom, their senior trip to Walt Disney World and their girlfriends. Offers rolled in from more than 15 companies, including giant telecommunications and Internet firms. Barrett said they chose First USA because "they understood our education came first."
The students announced their sponsorship on NBC's "Today" show in June and showed up again on dozens of local and national TV stations. During a CNN interview, they mentioned First USA so frequently that anchor Joie Chen told them on the air, "I think actually you have done the company's bidding."
Barrett related the whirlwind year on the way to his new dorm. His practiced nonchalance seemed to fade when a couple of girls took notice of him and asked why a photographer and reporter shadowed his campus tour.
After hearing of his media exploits, one girl gaped, "That's awesome!" Barrett, who's planning to focus his studies on business, beamed at the response.
Some consumer advocates lament what they say could be a disturbing new trend in corporate sponsorships.
"What it's saying is our society isn't capable of providing a good education for our kids without a little corporate control entering the picture," said Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial Free Public Education in Oakland.
University admissions officials, however, lauded the boys for their drive. The first time that Paul Long, Pepperdine's dean of admissions, met Barrett, the administrator immediately was struck by the young man's initiative. "He was showing me all the things he's done and invented, and I thought, 'Wow! This is an unusual student.' I was impressed."
For First USA, the campaign so far seems to be working and is a nice little distraction from recent legal problems. First USA and its Chicago-based parent, Bank One Corp., recently paid $84.9 million to settle three class-action suits over charges that they illegally hiked interest rates, imposed late fees and artificially inflated revenues.
"We were making mistakes," Bank One spokesman Thomas Kelly said. "But we have rebuilt this machine to serve customers well, and now we can go out and do initiatives like Chris and Luke."
Young people will be so taken by the novelty of the campaign, they won't spend much time pondering the bank's recent legal problems, said Jim Gregory, founder and chief executive of the international consulting firm Corporate Branding.
"The bank will look terrific," he said. "And younger people have shorter memories. If the bank is hip, if the bank is cool, then that overcomes a lot."
Still, McCabe and Barrett have obligations.
Exactly how much the bank will require them to do is vague, although Barrett said the job would not interfere with his studies. And their contracts have a "moral clause" that requires them to maintain a clean-cut image or risk losing their sponsorship.
"We have to keep up an image. Like, we can't go out and get arrested.... Not that we would go and do that anyway," Barrett said, pausing. Then, he blithely headed off to an orientation lecture.