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Tuning in to dropping out
| Sometimes things just don't work out. Not every student who arrives at McGill will stick it out until she gets her degree.
Sometimes, students find they just can't hack it in their programs. Sometimes life gets in the way. And sometimes they decide McGill isn't the right fit for them after all.
On the whole, McGill has an enviable track record in terms of the number of students who complete their degrees.
According to the most recent Maclean's ranking of Canadian universities, 91.6 per cent of McGill students graduate. Only two Canadian universities have better rates — Queen's and the University of Moncton.
Still, McGill student services staff would like to cut down the number of drop-outs even more.
"We don't bring them here to fail," says first-year students' coordinator Leslie Copeland.
One of the reasons why McGill's completion rate is so good is that the students coming in are among the best in the country. With an average entering grade of over 85 per cent (second best in Canada, according to Maclean's), McGill students are smart and accustomed to success.
Paradoxically, that can also contribute to some of them running into problems once they're here.
"They come in as A students. Then, all of a sudden, they're not gettings As anymore," says Copeland. "They're used to being the best and now they're surrounded by students who are just as good as they are."
Unaccustomed to getting mediocre marks, some students don't know how to cope with something they've never faced before.
"If they have a bad first year, their confidence becomes eroded," notes Ted Baker, director of the Counselling Service. Confidence is a fragile commodity. "It can be difficult for them to get back on track. They can't go into it with the enthusiasm they had in the past."
"What they have to know is that one poor semester isn't the end of the world," says Judy Pharo, the student advisor for the Faculty of Engineering. "The cumulative average [over a student's entire stay] is what really counts. We can talk about how to improve things for the next semester."
"A little blip in grades can cause an enormous amount of anguish," adds associate dean of students Rhonda Amsel. "Students have to realize that people looking at med school applications, for instance, will understand a drop in grades during the first semester."
Undergraduates are particularly vulnerable to dropping out during their first year.
"My sense is, once they make it past the first year, they're over the hump," says Amsel.
Which is why Copeland has her fairly new job. "I think that [creating that position] was one of the best moves we've made in recent years," says Baker.
Copeland is a resource for first-year students feeling their legs. "It takes time to make the transition and I tell them that's okay."
"Homesickness is something that happens a lot with students from out of town," says Amsel. "Sometimes people from small towns get thrown by the big city. When they encounter academic stress and they're far from home. they don't have their support systems nearby."
Copeland looks for ways for out-of-town students to build new support networks at McGill.
"I let them know about the different student clubs and about the International Students' Network and the international student buddy program (whereby a more experienced student is paired up with a first-year student). I steer them to the Volunteer's Bureau where they can get involved with all kinds of organizations."
Baker heralds Copeland's efforts, but wonders if McGill couldn't do even more to reach out to first year students.
"For instance, very often first year students don't even know we exist."
Amsel says there is a wide range of services for students facing different sorts of difficulties: Student Aid and the Career and Placement Service for students with financial woes; the Mental Health Service and the Counselling Service for students with emotional problems; the Tutorial Service which provides one-on-one assistance with academic difficulties.
"Students can even arrange for a temporary note-taker from the Office for Students with Disabilities if they have a broken arm."
If the problem is academic, Copeland says solutions are usually within reach. "Maybe the course load is too much. Can we drop some courses and go to a part-time status?"
Donald Sedgewick, senior advisor in the Student Affairs Office for the Faculties of Arts and Science, says that academic problems are usually fixable, but they need to be addressed quickly.
"If a student comes in after their finals and says, 'I think I have a problem,' that might be too late." Students have to initiate the process, says Sedgewick. "We don't go out and look for customers."
Pharo says there are mixed feelings among faculty in engineering about students in jeopardy. "There is still that sentiment only the strong will survive.
"It's easy to say X per cent just won't make it. But I think we still have a responsibility to them. Can we at least try to open up other possibilities for them?"
Baker worries that McGill might not do enough. The Tutorial Service is valuable, he warrants, but not all students can afford its $15 an hour fee. His office offers workshops in study skills and time management, but not in a flexible enough way for some students. "It would be nice to offer workshops after hours when students aren't in classes."
Sedgewick says there are other reasons for leaving.
"McGill might not be satisfying their needs. They might be studying English but they realize they really want to go into sculpting and we don't offer that here.
"Often it will have to do with something that happened outside their academic life. A parent has lost a job and can't support the child living in another city. The parents want them to come back home to go to university.
"Sometimes, you see a student who has gone into a program and he's in over his head. You find out, he's in the program due to a certain amount of parental pressure. They think it will lead to a good job."
"That happens," agrees Pharo. "You have to ask the student, 'What is your passion? Maybe it's not engineering."
Associate vice-principal (graduate studies) Martha Crago says the factors involved in whether graduate students drop out usually boil down to money.
"The basic amounts of funding available for students just aren't great in many areas. If you have to work, it takes longer to complete your degree. You become distracted. If the process takes too long, students become bored and disengaged." If students don't have to worry about paying the rent, "they have more time to work on their theses."
Adds Crago, "In high employment areas like computer science you'll see students getting whopping good job offers and they think, 'why wait until I've graduated?'"
Julian So left his studies in microbiology and immunology a few years ago on a leave of absence for medical reasons. Just as he was feeling better and planned to return to McGill, an opportunity came along to help set up a web site development company.
"Here was this business opportunity in a field I loved. It was a no-brainer," says So.
The business is doing well and So says he doesn't really regret not coming back.
"Still, it's always in the back of my mind. I'm just a few courses away from finishing. It would be nice to have the degree."
Evan Adams has no regrets about leaving McGill, although the decision left his father furious with him for a time.
Adams was studying biochemistry when he decided, pretty much on a whim, to try out acting.
Looking back, Adams says there were a few reasons for his change in course.
Born and raised on the Sliammon Reserve north of Vancouver, Adams recalls feeling isolated at McGill. "I didn't see anybody else who seemed to be identifiably aboriginal."
He says adjusting to university can be especially difficult for native students "because we live in two worlds. It seems as if there are twice as many things to take care of. I wanted to leave my reservation and move to Monteal because I wanted to learn French. My French got better, but my ability to speak my own language got worse."
He adds that native students have to cope with "the 'Great Red Hope' syndrome. There is a lot of pressure on us from our community to succeed." As an actor, Adams felt he had fewer expectations to live up to.
He's pleased that McGill now has the First Nation's House as a resource for aboriginal students. "That's a great idea."
Adams has done well as an actor, earning terrific reviews for his performance in the film Smoke Signals last year. Today he balances acting with medical school studies at the University of Calgary.
"It doesn't hurt to take a break and go off and see the world. That's a form of education too. If I hadn't left McGill, I wouldn't have what I have now. I really love that part of my life. I love being an actor."