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While the university experience is often painted in warm, happy tones, its early stages can be in a greyer palette. Students, many who are moving out for the first time, must suddenly deal with the dual pressures of higher education and the daily bump and grind of fending for themselves. It can be a strange mix of the highbrow and the mundane during which dirty laundry and dental sciences compete for time and attention, and late-night cramming for global nutrition is fuelled by Kraft Dinner straight from the pot. The combination of new campus, new classes, new friends and, often enough, an entirely new city leaves many first-year students understandably disoriented.
In order to help new students ease into this transition and to allay the concerns parents may harbour about entrusting their beloved offspring to McGill, the Alumni Association is hosting its annual Welcome Week from August 22-26. This three-pronged program offers of the Parents Tent, the ASK ME campaign and Residence Move-In days.
Move-In days are among the most emotion-laden days on the university calendar as many out-of-town students say goodbye to their families at the residence unloading areas. According to Janice Johnson, manager of the student housing office, "It's like a long-distance commercial," she says. "The car is finally unpacked and mom is fussing about while dad is being stoic. Often it's when a big brother or sister has to say goodbye to a younger sibling that the tears really start to flow."
This year, Move-In days fell on August 23 and 24. As part of Welcome Week, staff, alumni and returning students were on hand at a number of residences, distributing cookies, water, maps and useful information to frazzled newcomers and fragile parents. In many cases, they even helped people unload their vehicles. "Just no pianos," laughs Johnson.
Another invaluable resource for new students and their families is the ASK ME campaign. Identified by a T-shirt with the ASK ME logo on the front, these volunteers are armed with a head full of information, a smile and a bag full of goodies, including maps of McGill and Montreal, FAQ sheets and highlighters. Like walking information booths, ASK ME personnel can be found scattered around the university and greeting people at the Roddick Gates.
Open for the duration of Welcome Week, the Parents Tent serves as the headquarters for all activities and the base camp for new arrivals. Organizers expect some 1,000 families to visit the tent, located on the lower campus just inside the Roddick Gates, looking to pick the brains of on-site experts in such essentials as computers, insurance and student finances. Visitors can also register with the Parents' Association and pick up a copy of the Parents' Handbook, maps and other useful aids.
Often, parents just want to ask about academics, counseling, campus security, drinking and, of course, the weather. "Some people want to know where to buy a winter jacket right away," says Melanie McRae, Development and Alumni Relations, who has been working the tent for a number of years now. "They're amazed when I tell them that we don't really start thinking about winter until November."
Due to the popularity of previous years' tents, organizers decided to go with a decidedly larger version this time around. "It can get really crazy on Move-In days," says Brian Thompson of the McGill Alumni Association. "At our peak, we could have as many as 150 people in here at the same time. We wanted as much room as we could get."
Thompson believes that along with the complimentary coffee and doughnuts, parents like the friendly, one-stop shopping aspect of the tent. "I think they find it very reassuring," he says. One look around the tent is all it takes to see that the busiest people are those representatives manning the Rogers Communications kiosk where wistful-looking mothers and fathers sign their children up for cell phones. Nothing, it appears, is more reassuring than the sound of your child's voice.