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Coming to McGill in the fall of 2004 as an American from New York City, the question I always got was "why did you pick McGill?" The answer then was that I got rejected by Harvard and Columbia. That being said, coming to McGill has been one of the best choices I've ever made, and I'm more than happy to have ended up here. There are a whole lot of things about McGill that make it different from the average college experience in the US, and for all of you new students, you're about to find them out very, very quickly. First of all, don't call it college—it's a University. College is something else entirely.
One thing that's very different at McGill, and other Canadian universities, is the role of students' associations, the Canadian equivalent of student government. Some of my friends at schools in the States are on their student government. These are generally low-budget affairs overseen by members of the faculty. Not so at McGill, where undergraduate associations for every faculty, as well as the pan-campus association, Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU), run budgets into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, are almost-totally independent of the university, and hold legal rights. In fact, the SSMU runs an entire building on campus, that includes over 200 clubs and services, as well as a daycare, bookstore, and bar (yes, the drinking age in Montreal is 18).
Along with the different role of the students' associations at McGill is the broader role of the student movement in Quebec and Canada. Unlike in the US, students in every province and across the country are part of various provincial and federal organizations composed entirely of students' associations. There is a strong sense of a larger student movement in Canada, and several provincial and federal organizations of students.
Perhaps the biggest difference between McGill and both other Canadian and North American universities is the unique role of residences (or "Rez," at McGill). Unlike most American schools, students generally live in Rez only during their first year. In my first year, I was VP-Internal of Molson Hall (again with the student politics—and there are tons of ways to get involved in Rez). So, at McGill, you will find many students looking for apartments. Moreover, only 2,200 of the incoming 6,000 students live in Rez. A large proportion of new students are Montrealers living at home and this creates a unique dynamic at McGill—that between "day" students and Rez kids. It's a divide that the SSMU and the university have long been working to bridge, and was one of the focuses of the Principal's Task Force on Student Life and Learning last year.
Whether you're a Montrealer coming out of CEGEP or a fellow New Yorker coming to Canada for the first time, the greatest thing about McGill is the wealth of opportunities it provides outside of the academic environment. If you don't get involved in student politics, or join an athletic team, or move to an interesting and exciting neighbourhood, or make a point to learn French while you're here, you're definitely missing out. Regardless of where you're from or how you ended up at this great institution of learning, make the most of it and take advantage. Four years in, I'm still glad I ended up here and look forward to another great year at McGill and in Montreal.
Jake Itzkowitz is President of the Students' Society of McGill University.