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New students arrive at McGill brimming with energy and enthusiasm. But, too often, the immensity of the experience quickly overwhelms them. "McGill can seem like a big and anonymous place, especially for first-year students," says Principal Heather Munroe-Blum. "And while interdisciplinary learning has been a hallmark of our recent recruiting programs, if you're enrolled in one program, it can prove difficult to find out how to benefit from courses in another." But life doesn't have to be that way.
"We want McGill to be known, not as a great university to attend in spite of its bureaucracy, but as a great university to attend, period," says Munroe-Blum. "Our goal is to provide solid supports for services to students, to welcome our students effectively, to ease their navigation through the university system and to help them profit from the wonderful array of programs we offer."
To ensure that these things come to pass, last spring Munroe-Blum formed the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which she chairs. In addition to Munroe-Blum, twelve students and twelve administrators or professors were appointed to the task force, which was then divided into five working groups.
Each group has a mandate to explore a specific aspect of the McGill student experience: defining the place of students in the McGill community, including ways to support their academic aspirations; assessing administrative support and financial assistance, as well as special support and counselling for students in crisis; developing strategies to foster sensitivity to cultural differences; supporting relations among Quebec students and those from outside the province; and enhancing electronic communication. Since its May 2005 call for input from the university community, the task force has received 160 submissions, mainly from students and members of the administrative and support staff who work with them, as well as from professors and deans.
After a year of listening, discussing, deliberating and debating, at the end of April the task force released its progress report.
"The progress report is intended to give the community a sense of where we're going, with a view to getting additional feedback from them, and it is also our response to the interest that has been expressed," says Victoria Meikle, Special Assistant to the Principal and a member of what has become known as the Secretatriat for the Task Force. Preliminary recommendations focus on enhancing the university's advising and mentoring programs, finding ways of improving financial assistance and establishing a senior administrative position responsible for student life and learning to champion McGill as a student-centred university.
"There has been a great deal of community interest because there is a shared feeling that we need to think about how well we are serving our students, and as a result we have had many opportunities to discuss our work," says Meikle. Members of the task force have met with faculty deans at a working lunch, addressed a joint session of the Board of Governors and the Senate last fall, attended student society activities nights and partaken of a residence dinner with students. "The whole process has been tremendously interesting and informative," she says.
The task force has already begun to make its mark. "We received many recommendations that could be implemented in real time," says Munroe-Blum, noting that a number of these suggestions have already been sent to the Registrar's Office, advising offices, libraries, and the Student Centre. "We have been seeing an ongoing impact."
A timeline for implementing the major recommendations will be developed by the administration after the task force's final report. A draft of this report will be released in the fall, and the final report itself is scheduled for release at the end of 2006. As the task force has not yet completed its work and made its final recommendations, it is not too late to provide input on student life and learning at McGill. The progress report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning will be available online by June 9 at http://www.mcgill.ca/studentlife/progressreport/ (in English) and http://francais.mcgill.ca/studentlife/progressreport (in French).