Left Out In The Cold

Photo: Evelyn Dom
This piece is part of a follow up series to the Fall 2017 News Feature, The Price of the McGill Dream. The series features the voices of first generation students and students from low-income backgrounds. If you would like to be featured, please contact news@bullandbearmcgill.com.

“I lost my dad on December 31, 2013, and then three weeks later, I lost my grandmother. I was so far away from home, further than I’ve ever been, and I lost a parent. That has been more of a trademark stamp on my university career than being a first generation student,” Grace Miller Day recalled to The Bull & Bear in an early January 2018 interview.

Born in Hong Kong, Grace moved to British Columbia at the age of eleven. She and her siblings were the first in their family to attend a traditional university, but her experience in this regard took a back seat to the other challenges she has faced over the course of her McGill career. Still, she contends, her parents’ story is worth being told.

Neither her mother or father received an undergraduate degree, but both became chartered accountants later in life. Her mother, in particular, has always been able to relate to academic stresses: she struggled with dyslexia in grammar school, and chose to become a secretary at an accounting firm rather than attend university. Quickly, the firm noticed her proficiency with numbers, and they supported her in her pursuit to become an accountant. Grace’s mother lived in dorms with other students to minimize costs, worked part-time, and studied her accounting coursework until late at night, making her acutely aware of the challenges university students face. “My mom dealt with stress in a different setting, but, at the same time, it was very similar to what we go through at McGill. My parents have been incredibly supportive of that,” Grace noted.

Grace acknowledged that being a first generation student can make for a McGill experience different from that of the standard student. However, Grace maintained that her time at McGill has been impacted less by her “first generation” status than other barriers she’s faced. “I am very fortunate to come from a family that has worked very hard to be able to support me at McGill. And I’ve been very lucky in the sense that my parents were retired before I came to university, which has meant that I’ve had sort of the same level of support that other [non-first generation students] might get from parents,” she articulated. “Starting at McGill was easier for me than moving to Canada, which was a huge culture shock for me. I felt very international, very different, when I first moved to Canada, and being at McGill allowed me to be with a group of people with so many different backgrounds,” Grace continued.

Despite the ease with which she settled into McGill in her first weeks, Grace’s first semester of university was marked by circumstances much different from those of her peers, due to a devastating loss in December of her first year: the passing of her father.

While Grace did return to McGill in the winter semester to continue working towards her degree, trying to keep up with school while mourning the loss of her father proved to be incredibly painful. She described her refusal to eat and speak due to her grief, and how she sat shiva  – the Jewish mourning process – alone, because she felt she had no one to turn to.

When asked if she felt she was supported by McGill during this difficult time, Grace did not have to think twice before immediately responding with a simple “no.” She followed up by explaining how the university failed to support her as her father’s health declined during her first semester, as well as in the aftermath of her loss. Grace emphasized that while her professors were incredibly accommodating, and most took matters into their own hands to assist her, the response from the university itself was “not [one of] McGill’s shining moments.”

Anticipating that her father’s health would decline in the months to come, Grace’s mother flew to McGill with her at the beginning of her first semester to explain their circumstances, in order to make the Associate Dean (Student Affairs) of the Faculty of Arts aware that Grace would have to leave McGill during the semester as her father’s Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) progressed. Grace, visibly frustrated, recounted the Associate Dean’s blunt response: “shouldn’t you just take three courses, then?”

In late November 2013, when Grace received a call from her mother with the news that her father had been resuscitated, she immediately packed her bags and flew to London to be with him. Before leaving, she was anxious to make arrangements for her upcoming final exams, and was disappointed by the lack of accommodation the university was prepared to offer her. The typical protocol would have been to defer all of her exams for an entire semester, which was “not an option” due to the unrealistic burden that would have caused at the end of the Winter semester. She recalled, “I was told initially that I would only be able to defer an exam the day before the exam, and you know, I needed to be with my dad, it was the last month I ever spent with my dad.”

Grace knew that she needed to take her exams early, but revealed that “the Faculty of Arts didn’t come through for [her],” even though the Dean was aware of her circumstances. Grace urgently sought a meeting with the faculty’s Associate Dean (Student Affairs), but received no response from the Dean’s office even after a week of consistent calls. Despite McGill’s general unwillingness to deal with parents, it wasn’t until Grace’s mother intervened by calling the university herself that Grace was finally granted a meeting with the Dean to discuss her options.

In the end, three out of four of Grace’s professors took it upon themselves to administer final assessments early, and she praised them for stepping in to help her when she “got nothing” from the McGill administration. Even with the help of these professors, there were still other administrative matters that Grace had to deal with in order to be excused from her courses early.

The most frustrating of these was McGill’s insistence that Grace have her father’s doctors write directly to the university as documentation of her situation. Grace recalled that “the guy who was the head of [my father’s] team is one of the best known specialists for COPD in the world, and he doesn’t have time to write to a university on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to tell them that I need to leave school.” Though she eventually received the note from the specialist, she was troubled and distressed by the university’s insistence on such a document at such a sensitive time.

In addition to the response from McGill’s administration, which Grace perceives as insensitive and problematic, she was also troubled by the failure of McGill Mental Health Services to adequately assist her and other students who seek counseling. Specifically, she pointed out the months-long wait times that McGill students face just to see a counselor, and the fact that students are often unable to see the same counselor at subsequent visits that they saw at their initial appointment. For students struggling with their mental health or trying to process life-altering events like Grace after the loss of her father, these services are simply not sufficient. As a result, students who are desperate for help are left out in the cold.

Grace discussed how the lack of access to mental health services at McGill negatively affects students who are struggling, particularly those who cannot afford to seek help elsewhere: “For people who are actually struggling, and need immediate help… I wouldn’t have been able to wait months to see a counselor when my dad died… As it was, I was seeing a counselor three times a week when I got back, but I was lucky I could afford to. And some students don’t get that privilege and I think that’s horrific.” Grace contended that seeing a specialist was an important aspect of her grieving and healing process.

Ultimately, Grace asserted that McGill must do better when it comes to accommodating students whose circumstances do not conform to the standard student’s experience. Specifically, she insisted that McGill should be more willing to let students go at their own pace in completing their degrees; many students encounter personal hardships while studying at university, and the university needs to take these conditions into account and work with students to help them be successful. “Just taking three courses,” as the university suggested she do when she first reached out for help, was not a feasible option for her, even if it may have been for others. Grace noted that solutions catered more individually to each student who sought them would make miles of difference.

While Grace acknowledged that her experience at McGill has been “marred” by the personal challenges she faced and the university’s response, both in terms of how the administration handled her father’s death and with regards to the lack of mental health services provided, she also stressed the positive connections she has made here. These include professors who have supported her, as well the community of friends that have gotten her through such difficult moments in her life.

“I love my friends. I love my classes. I have a couple of professors who will always have a special place in my heart, because they’ve just been phenomenal. Over the last five years, I’ve grown an incredibly supportive and wonderful group of friends who I think will genuinely be lifelong friends, who I know I can call at two o’clock in the morning and they won’t be upset with me if I’m crying…That for me has been the best part of university,” she noted, a smile appearing across her face.

Grace added that she has no reservations about discussing her identity as a first generation student, or her parents’ educational backgrounds, with friends and peers. However, she provided insight into to why some first generation students may be less comfortable openly discussing their backgrounds. She attributed the insecurities that some students may feel with regards to their backgrounds to the competitive academic and professional culture at McGill. “Often, there’s the tearing down of other people to make yourself feel better and smarter, and I think that people are embarrassed about the circumstances that they came to McGill in… I personally wish that wasn’t the case for people, but know that it can be hard coming in with sort of different circumstances when all of your peers are one way, and your family is another way… It’s really difficult.”

That said, Grace had a word of advice for students who face similar circumstances to hers, whether it be attending university as a first generation student, or coping with personal and often traumatic challenges: “Be proud of who you are. Everything we experience in life, at McGill or elsewhere, makes us the people we are today. If I was to give one word of advice, I’d say be proud of who you are. No one else’s words or actions can affect you unless you let them affect you.”

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