Gwenda Wells: Spiritual friend

A lot of university students hit a rough patch around graduation. Suddenly the question of what they're going to do with the rest of their lives looms up and the answers can be hard to come by.

Gwenda Wells knows. She's been there.

Shortly after she graduated, she found herself doing environmental work in a government agency. It just wasn't fulfilling. "It was a searching, wondering kind of time," she says. Her search ultimately led to a significant career shift. "I felt drawn to do something that was bigger than me," she explains. So she earned a Master of Divinity degree from the University of Toronto and was soon on her way to becoming the Reverend Gwenda Wells.

Now head of the McGill Chaplaincy Service, Wells says she's pleased when she can help out a student going through a similar experience. "To see a student dare to put a foot forward and explore possibilities he's never considered before, that's a very special thing."

She says her job has been made easier by the great groundwork laid by predecessor Helmut Saabas. "He did a lot for the chaplaincy, working quietly behind the scenes. He did a particularly good job of building links with the various groups that help students."

Wells works with a team of Christian and Jewish chaplains. Part of Student Services, they're headquartered at the Newman Centre on Peel Street, but McGill chaplains also work out of Hillel House, Chabad House and the Yellow Door.

Before she arrived at McGill, Wells served as a minister in a pair of Eastern Townships parishes. It was pleasant enough, but Wells says she leapt at the opportunity to work here.

"I love working with students. It's a real privilege to be with people who have so much energy. They're full of visions of the possible."

So what do chaplains do at a university? Not surprisingly, they organize Bible studies, provide counsel on matters of faith, conduct religious services and officiate at weddings.

They're also the driving force behind McGill's annual collection of donated winter clothes for international students. They helped lobby the administration to be more respectful of Jewish holy days when putting together exam schedules. They organize support networks and discussion groups  an interfaith discussion group in which women from different religious backgrounds compare experiences, for instance.

Wells herself runs a choir of students and staff called the New Earth Singers who perform everything from "medieval chants to Oscar Peterson."

Last year she organized weekly visits of McGill students from law, social work and theology to the Bordeaux Jail. "The inmates really looked forward to those visits. It was quite wonderful for them to be taken seriously by a group of university students."

Much of the chaplains' time is spent counselling students. "I do my best to leave students with the impression that this is a compassionate institution." When appropriate, Wells will steer students towards the Counselling Service or the Ombudsperson's Office.

"There is a certain freedom in being a chaplain. Our role is a little bit different from the counselors in that we can be both a professional helper and a spiritual friend. We don't have to have the same kind of objective distance."

Is it ever difficult being a chaplain in a secular institution such as a university? "It might be secular, but it's certainly not a spiritless place," responds Wells. "In my job I can see just how hard many of the professors and staff work to help out students who have problems. That's a side to the University that I'm fortunate to see."

Daniel McCabe

I think we tend to over-medicalize our unhappiness... Medicine has been our substitute religion, our source of miracles. If you're treating your existential needs, your spiritual yearnings with Prozac, you have a problem, haven't you?

Dr. Margaret Somerville, of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, on the widespread use of Prozac in an En Route magazine article marking the 10th anniversary of the drug's coming to market. Prozac is taken by an estimated 24 million people every day and has worldwide sales of more than $2 billion.

Heavenly help

A Harvard Medical School researcher is about to conduct a rather unusual study of power. Not the kind wielded by politicians or generated by fossil fuels, but the power of prayer.

Dr. Herbert Benson has received a $1.4 million grant from a U.S. foundation to try to measure the healing effect of prayer. Three groups of patients who have undergone heart bypass surgery will be studied. One group will be prayed for and will know about it. Of the two other groups, one will be prayed for and one will not, but neither doctors nor patients will know which is which.

Says Benson, "By comparing those who are uncertain with those who know they're being prayed for, we'll find any results of the power of belief."

Prayers will come from groups of different faiths around the United States who routinely pray for other people. The intercessors will be given the first names and last initials of those they pray for.

Benson, who calls himself a non-practising Jew, contends that humans are "wired for God," in that religious belief is part of human biology and even confers a survival advantage. According to the Harvard Gazette, Benson's two-year project has already attracted "a steady stream of criticism from scientists and, surprisingly, religious scholars who claim that scientific methods cannot measure if, or how, prayer works."

Undaunted, Benson is spirited in defence of his research and inspired by its possibilities. "Anecdotal information about the healing power of faith has existed for centuries. If we can show that prayer helps people who don't even believe in God, that would be revolutionary!"

The thing about this disease is's one where you go from being alive to dead within 24 hours, and any new cause of that is worrisome.

Dr. Michael Gardam, a student in McGill's medical microbiology program and a resident at the Montreal Children's Hospital, speaking to The Globe and Mail about a new form of flesh-eating disease caused by group B streptococcus. Gardam recently presented a paper on the disease, which has struck at least three people in Canadian cities, to the American Society for Microbiology.

Exporting Walksafe

The news that a student at England's Newcastle University had been raped brought back horrific memories for Sandra Dunking. Now pursuing graduate studies at Newcastle, Dunking, a former McGill student, was raped five years ago at Concordia University.

Shortly after her own traumatic experience, Dunking became involved in McGill's student-run Walksafe Network. "When I read about the rape here, I realized that a Walksafe scheme could work in Newcastle too," Dunking told the Times Higher-Education Supplement.

She approached university administrators with the idea and found a receptive audience. Nearby institutions Newcastle College and the University of Northumbria signed on too, and the region's police department has also supported the initiative.

The program is modeled after the one at McGill. Founded in 1991, McGill Walksafe provides teams of volunteers to escort students home from campus after dark. The volunteers are all students and each team of walkers has at least one female member.

The Newcastle program screens all volunteers and trains them in self-defence and first aid. The police monitor the student patrols on closed-circuit television.

Dunking says safety isn't the only benefit to having a program like Walksafe in place. "I've met some really interesting people who I would never normally come across."

Any student interested in getting in touch with McGill Walksafe can contact the group at 398-2498.

You can always tell the ones who are the nouveau first fliers. They over-indulge and take in everything that's put in front of them, even if it blows two days of business meetings.

Management professor Louis Gialloreto on the subject of first-time first-class fliers. Gialloreto, an expert on the airline industry, was interviewed by The Globe and Mail.