October 10, 1996

First-year students need warmer welcome

Students new to McGill often feel isolated.

by Paul Gott

Entering university can be a scary experience for a lot of students and many don't make it past their freshman year. A new study in the U.S. indicates that American first-year college students are dropping out at record rates.

McGill retains more than 80% of its frosh--as opposed to the North American average of about 70%. While McGill does a better job than most universities at retaining new students, a report from a workgroup set up to investigate the first-year experience concluded that there is still room for improvement.

The workgroup, chaired by religious studies professor Kathleen Skerrett, noted, for instance, that non-traditional or first-generation students in particular "often feel that they do not 'belong' at McGill."

"We have an excellent retention rate for first-year students, but that may be partially because of the students themselves--the fact that they have such excellent academic backgrounds," says Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier. "Very often there's an information overload during the first week and then students are left pretty much to fend for themselves. This is something that must be addressed if we want to improve the quality of their experience at McGill."

Skerrett's workgroup recommended establishing the position of first-year coordinator in the Dean of Students office and Jukier backs the idea.

"We have so many services for students entering the University right now, but they're scattered around the campus and controlled by different groups," says Jukier. "So a lot of students find McGill to be large and bureaucratic as they're sent from place to place across the campus when they first come in. Having a single person to coordinate all our efforts would make it easier for both the students and the people who are trying to help them adjust to university life."

The first-year coordinator position will be proposed to the Senate Committee on the Coordination of Student Services (CCSS) this month.

"So far the reaction to the idea has been very positive," says Jukier, who suggests that the position be created for a one-year trial period. "Both the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the Post-Graduate Students' Society (PGSS) have been completely behind the idea."

"We think it's a great idea," says Mark Feldman, SSMU's vice-president (internal). "McGill does many good things for incoming students, but there's still a lot of overlap and conflict. I'm in my fourth year and I'm pretty involved in the University, but there are still some basic services that I don't know how to find or use. For a small investment, the return for students will be huge."

Both Jukier and Feldman hope the first-year coordinator position could eventually expand into an entire first-year office. The Dean of Students office and SSMU are already planning to better integrate their activities for first-year students during orientation week next year.

The Skerrett report noted that academic advising appointments often conflicted with SSMU events geared towards helping first-year students meet other students. It's important that new McGill students receive both sorts of assistance, says the report.

The workgroup's report also suggests that all first-year students receive a phone call, e-mail or a personal letter from a current student or professor prior to their arrival at the University--to make them feel welcome or to deal with any concerns the new students might have (the Faculties of Engineering and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences have programs in place along these lines). According to the report, "It might be prudent, in the long run, to ensure that McGill has telephoned its students at least once in their lives for reasons other than fundraising."

The report also recommends putting international students and first-generation students who may be "particularly vulnerable to feelings of dislocation when they arrive on campus" in touch with mentors who can help them adjust to McGill and Montreal.

Academic advising must also be given greater emphasis, say Skerrett and her workgroup colleagues. Professional advisors are overworked, they need to collaborate more efficiently with faculty members, and students are made to wait too long before they receive appointments with advisors. The report calls for academic advising to become a formal part of the teaching responsibilities of professors.

The Dean of Students thinks that anything that can be done to make first-year students feel more at ease is well worth serious consideration.

"What we're hoping to do is simply make the quality of the students' life at McGill better," says Jukier. "I think a little effort on our part could result in an even higher retention rate for first-year students and could be very important in attracting new students to the University."