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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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Home > McGill News > 2002 > Winter 2002-2003 > Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

It's been almost three years since I moved off campus and into my own apartment, but as I climb the stairs that lead towards Bishop Mountain Hall, home to the cafeteria that feeds the inhabitants of McGill's upper residence, I'm flooded with memories of my days there. Indeed, I can recall exactly the last meal I shared with my friends from residence, which ended rather abruptly when I playfully tossed a bread roll across the table, an innocent action that led to a mild food fight that in turn caused me and my dining companions to be promptly and permanently expelled from the cafeteria.

I'm not proud of that moment, but I'm also not alone: most past inmates of McGill's residence system have tales to tell of similar hijinks. During Homecoming Weekend in October, a number of former residents gather in the common room of Molson Hall to reminisce about the heady days they spent dwelling in McGill residences.

Robert Blohm, BA'79, MBA'81, lived in Douglas Hall when many rooms still had open fireplaces. "Once we took a tree stump," he says, indicating its large size with widespread hands. "I stuck it in there, and there was too much smoke in the chimney so it started filling the room. I got really scared and we had to throw it out the window!"

John Service, MDCM'62, joins the laughter. "We used to throw firecrackers at the warden's door," he admits rather sheepishly, recalling his own days at Douglas while studying medicine between 1958 and 1962. "The guys in F house sealed up the door to the bathroom and turned on the shower -- there was a huge flood! There were sure wild times!"

Pranks and misdemeanours aside, Blohm, Service and the other alumni in attendance cite the international atmosphere (due to the diversity of student residents that is still typical today) and a good environment for studying as the best parts of their residence experience. With the exception of Royal Victoria College, residence life is now co-educational, but physical accommodation on the main campus has changed very little. McGill's downtown location means there's been no land available to build new housing and existing properties close to campus command top prices. While out-of-town students may once have lived in residence throughout their time at McGill, limited space relative to enrolment means places are reserved for first-year students only -- and there isn't room for all of them.

Four housing options are available, offering places for about 1,750 students. There's the area known as "Upper Rez," which includes the Bishop Mountain Hall complex, featuring three co-ed buildings that snuggle into the side of Mount Royal at the top of the infamous University Street hill -- a particular challenge in winter. McConnell, Gardner and Molson residences were built around Bishop Mountain Hall, a circular two-storey dining facility. The complex, officially opened in 1962 by the Duke of Edinburgh, was cited for innovative design, although McGill News coverage at the time made students sound a little like battery chickens. "What the Prince...saw was a striking innovation in modern institutional accommodation and feeding. But the most exciting feature of the Centre is Bishop Mountain Hall...which, at capacity, will feed about 1,000 students in less than two hours." Alongside these buildings is the older and more architecturally elegant Douglas Hall, built in 1936 of grey stone quarried from the north side of the mountain and featuring gabled slate roofs and tall chimneys.

Closer to campus is Royal Victoria College, which recently celebrated its centenary as a residence catering exclusively to female students. McGill's Off-Campus Residence Experience (MORE) houses are buildings dotted around the neighbourhoods adjacent to McGill that have been leased by the University and converted into small, self-catering residences. And finally, there's Solin Hall, located 15 minutes from campus near the Atwater market and Lachine Canal. Once an abandoned factory, Solin was purchased by McGill in 1989, underwent an award-winning, $9 million renovation, and now houses students in two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Macdonald students aren't left out in the cold, either. Of particular note is the EcoResidence, which saw the conversion in 1998 of Robertson Terrace from a dilapidated and largely uninhabitable '60s-era student residence into a model of environmentally friendly design, garnering yet another architectural prize. Mostly built out of material recycled from the original structure, the EcoResidence has greenhouse balconies on the second floor, thicker walls which radiate heat, and a reshaped roofline which increases energy efficiency in both summer and winter. Recycling and composting services are available for the 100 residents, and future plans include an ecological waste water treatment facility, which will not only increase the building's self-sufficiency but also enhance the academic experience for students. Another 210 students live in Laird Hall, a more traditional residence, also on the Macdonald campus.

Flo Tracy has been Director of Residences since 1980, and says the job is essentially the same today as it was 20 years ago. "The student hasn't changed, although the pressure may be a bit different now because society has changed." Her mandate, she explains, is "to provide the students with a comfortable, safe and fun environment to live in when they're at McGill, an environment that they can grow in and learn. Helping them adjust -- that's our whole philosophy."

Simple enough, but in reality it means Tracy has overall responsibility for everything from room assignments to security and maintenance issues, food services, health emergencies, supervision of residence staff and day-to-day troubleshooting. These chores make for much more than a 40-hour work week for Tracy, who lives in Royal Victoria College. "You don't count the hours if it's fulfilling," she says with a smile.

Tracy is well aware of the accommodation shortage and the efforts to solve it. "For the senior administration at the University it's a high priority to get additional space," she says. For now, she does her best to maximize the current facilities. "Because it is a self-funding operation, most of our income comes from student fees. A tension is providing excellent service at low cost."

Backing up Tracy is a broad network of support for resident students. Each building includes an apartment for a warden, usually a university academic, who lives on-site and provides advice and guidance. Dons, as well as floor and MORE fellows, are upper-year students who also live in residence and provide advice, friendship and fun for first-year students. "Having a presence of a professor or a senior university person is excellent," Tracy says, emphasizing that the residence staff is a top-notch team. "We have a great selection process for our floor fellows and dons."

Nili Isaacs, BEd'03, is in her third year as a floor fellow in Gardner Hall, and her fourth year living in residence. "I loved my first-year experience," she says, "so I wanted to do my part to give that to other people. It's such a lifestyle, you're surrounded by an amazing variety of people and it's so much fun. I love watching people grow from when they first move in and don't know anyone, and I see two years later how well they handle themselves."

While at some universities floor fellows must take on a strict supervisory and even disciplinary role, those at McGill assume a wider responsibility, with the only tenet being the maintenance of respect. "We don't have a lot of rules, and we're proud of that," Tracy says. "And we feel that if we show students respect, they'll live up to it."

This allows Isaacs and other floor fellows to have a more personal relationship with student residents. "Some of my duties are being a social animator, planning events, making sure that social stuff happens. There's a little bit of everything -- academic, social and personal. Plus resource stuff: people come and ask me for all kinds of information."

Matt Lyman, BA'05, sees life in McGill residences as an invaluable experience. "You can't put a price on what rez provides," he says. Lyman and Stephanie Axmann, BA'03, are the Residence Life coordinators, filling positions created this year to help organize social goings-on in residence, from parties to movie nights to weekend trips. Like Isaacs, both Axmann and Lyman were motivated to apply for their positions by their own good residence experiences.

"Everyone wants to make the residence community really enjoyable," Axmann explains. "First-year students have so much enthusiasm," Lyman adds. "They're beaming with positive energy. They're out of their homes for the first time, and helping them make the most of that energy gives me a lot of pleasure." At the beginning of the year, Axmann and Lyman planned several events to help new students get to know each other better, including a large barbecue on the grounds of the Rutherford Reservoir at the top of McTavish Street and a trip to a Montreal Expos game.

The pair also provide guidance for members of the residence councils, students who take leadership positions in order to more actively participate in residence life. "Council seems very enthusiastic this year," Axmann says, herself a former member of the McConnell Hall council who helped organize a lavish cocktail party that has become an annual event and even inspired a scene in the recent film Abandon, which was partly filmed in McConnell.

Emily Graham, BA'05, is the current president of RVC's council. "I was having second thoughts about coming to RVC because it's the most expensive residence," she says, "but my mom talked me into it." Good advice, as it turned out. "The rooms are really close together. I was put on a really small floor so I got to know everyone right away." Graham soon grew to love the residence community. "You get to see a lot of people at once; it's not like when you're floating around classes meeting people here and there." Like Isaacs, she likes being able to offer help to new students living away from home for the first time.

Perhaps it's this bridge between youth and adulthood that is the most important thing that McGill residences can offer students, giving them a safe and positive environment in which to grow.

"You don't make mistakes if you don't take risks," says Tracy. "Part of growing up is learning how to make good decisions by making wrong ones. Even I'm still learning that!"

Jean Edelstein, a former denizen of McConnell Hall, is studying English literature and political science. She hails from Niskayuna, New York.

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