On Tuesday, April 5th 2016, off-campus and commuter students gathered to talk about community, services, and accommodations that could make their lives at McGill easier to manage.
The event was a drop-in; most students stayed long enough to have a slice of pizza and write some feedback on post-it notes. What do commuter students want? According to the responses, mostly nap spaces, but some suggested other accommodations: showers, lounges, subsidized bus passes, longer shuttle hours, a seat on the Inter-Residence Council (IRC), lockers, and more off-campus events were also proposed.
A Growing Initiative
Idea Café, as the Campus Life & Engagement (CL&E) project team calls it, is part of a larger project to provide better support to off-campus and commuter students. To find out more about the program, I sat down with Jessica Malz, Off-Campus & Commuter Student Support Project Leader, and Gilbert Lin, Off-Campus & Commuter Student Support Project Assistant.
B&B: Can you talk to me a bit about the project? Is this a new initiative?
Jessica: “In terms of it being a new initiative, yes and no. Right?”
Gilbert: “Yeah. In the past, there have been some off-campus initiatives, [such as] the Off-Campus Fellows, but this is new to Campus Life and Engagement. Last September, I volunteered for Off-Campus Connect (OCX), [which is] the big off-campus orientation project – I was a facilitator there and that’s how I got involved with this project. To my knowledge, I think this is the first official CL&E project.”
Jessica: “Yeah, and I actually think it’s the first time that a portfolio focused just on support for off-campus and commuter students [has] been developed […] Off-Campus Fellows was an initiative that came out of Rez.”
B&B: What has your project involved so far?
Jessica: “The first was a think-a-thon, and we just did the idea cafe.”
Gilbert: The think-a-thon [was] organized by the previous project team. […] They got a lot of people together, stakeholders and faculty members, to talk about the quality of commuter’s lives [at McGill]. They were split into groups, came up with ideas [such as] creating a physical space for off-campus students, like reviving the Off-Campus Fellows program. Based on those results, we held the Idea Cafe. […] It’s still in a preliminary phase to gather data and see what students really want.”
B&B: Since there have already been initiatives to gather data, what do you think has prevented McGill from responding to students’ suggestions until now?
Jessica: “I think this initiative is one step in solving that. McGill got a pretty decent amount of funding to start this project and to implement something on campus. Our project looks really different than the Off-Campus Fellows program that Rez started; [gathering data] was not part of their portfolio, but was something they piloted and didn’t have the funds to continue. So that’s really the reason– it wasn’t that the program wasn’t good, there was just a lack of funding. We didn’t necessarily inherit Off Campus Fellows, we inherited more of the portfolio of “here’s this population at McGill that needs services and support”. The Idea Cafe […] is one of the initial things that we’re doing to get the ball rolling. We want this to be student-centered, where students can tell us what they want and need and then design our programming and services […] based on what they’ll actually use.”
B&B: Are there any ideas that you’re considering implementing based off of what you’ve heard so far?
Jessica: “Actually, a lot of them. We are interested in finding or creating a physical space. We’re in discussion with other departments, which I don’t want to name just because it’s in such a preliminary phase, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by […] other departments’ openness and desire [to collaborate].”
B&B: If you do manage to obtain it, what do you plan on using the physical space for?
Jessica: “If we had a physical space, [in response to feedback,] we’d use it for lockers, fridges, microwaves, lounging and study spaces.”
Gilbert: “In Rez, they have their own games room and study rooms, so we want to bring something like that to off-campus students. A lot of students are telling us that during the winter, they have boots, their coats, and then they don’t want to carry that around, right? People were asking for lockers, and that’s something [we can do].”
Jessica: “Yeah, I also see it as a social community and networking space where we can offer a lot of our programs, hold community engagements out of there, and really start building a community.”
B&B: What sort of programs are you hoping to put in place?
Jessica: “A riff off the Off-Campus Fellows program would be one possibility. Another one would be workshops– training and development specifically for off-campus students. Also, we’ve got some ideas for events.”
Gilbert: “We’re bringing back OCX.”
Jessica: Off Campus Connects […] is the orientation day –which is going to be a lot of fun, we’re going to do a lot of activities– and we’re doing this with around 500 students, but we don’t want it to just [end there], like, they’re making connections, and building teams and stuff and we don’t [want them to] never see each other again. We want to build programming and events that link students throughout the year.”
B&B: Are there any areas where you’d like to hear more feedback from students?
Jessica: “I wanna know how connected off-campus students feel to campus. And to follow that up, I wanna know how satisfied they are with their level of connection. From a programming perspective, we want students to feel engaged, to feel connected to campus, and to know about all of the different services that are being offered at McGill. But I want to know, are they interested?”
Gilbert: Yeah, we want to see what off campus students really want, what their needs are that we can facilitate […] what would make their lives easier?
B&B: Are you planning to collaborate with other McGill initiatives and groups that are interested in helping commuter students? For example, Sacha Magder– the SSMU’s VP of Operations– is also interested in creating a physical space for off-campus students, right?
Jessica: Yes, [Sacha’s] been looking to do something really cool called the Crash Pad during Frosh for off-campus students, so that they have a safe place to stay on campus. I think him getting into SSMU is going to be really helpful with that. We’re supporting him and trying to help him move that through. He’s interested in copying a model that Ryerson uses, where it’s a permanent space for off-campus students, sort of like Airbnb, but university-run. For example, if students are at the library late, and then it closes and they can’t make it home, they have somewhere safe to go. And yes, we’re collaborating with faculty, student services, and student groups across campus to get different projects off the ground as well.”
Sacha Magder & the Crash Pad
After being contacted by the Bull & Bear, Sacha Magder clarified some of his ideas in a statement. The “crash-pad” project will ideally be up and running by Frosh 2016, allowing students to access a closed and safe sleeping space as needed. Students will have to provide their own sleeping bags and air mattresses, but the room will be locked and supervised by the Orientation Week facilitators.
Magder pointed out that Ryerson, the University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia have already executed similar projects. Although allocating space in the SSMU building is logistically challenging, Magder suggests “forming relationships with either McGill Residences or 3rd party housing (Evo, Varsity 515, etc.) to provide rooms for short-term rentals at a discounted price to students.”
Showers and lockers are also a point of interest for Magder, who feels that commuter students would benefit from having better access to such amenities. “There is a clear need for better support systems for commuter students,” said Magder. “Currently, my focus is to first show that this project is desired, relevant and possible.”
Call to Action: Make Your Voice Heard
As exciting as these plans can be for commuter students, the project team needs more feedback before it can move forward. Luckily, there are a number of ways that off-campus students can make contact: by e-mail, Facebook, and by attending their drop-in sessions, the most recent held last night, Wednesday, April 13th, 2016.
McGill’s off-campus community is a large and diverse group of students. Whether from Montreal or internationally, living independently or with their parents, they all face a wide array of challenges on a daily basis that McGill could (and has a responsibility to) support.
For the first time, it seems as though McGill is ready to help. Off-campus student’s voices are still needed, and showing interest in the project –a rare opportunity for reform on campus— is the only way to bring about positive change for commuter and off-campus students.