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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am just like any other student. I don’t have a lot of money, I love a good apartment crawl, my friends are my lifeline, McLennan is my second home, Nesta is my stomping ground, and small things like a free box of Kraft Dinner make me the happiest kid in the world. I might not be from a big city or have seven figure dreams, but I still think OAP is the happiest place on earth, and just like every other student at McGill, I have no idea why Minerva can’t be upgraded to look like it wasn’t created 20 years ago. I grew up playing sports, going to school, and just being generally really happy.
What I am trying to say is that I might be a country kid – I grew up on the outskirts of a farming community in Southwestern Ontario where my dad taught me how to steer an ATV at age four – but McGill has never really felt that far out of reach for me. I have my parents to thank for that; they moved mountains for me and my brother, and the older I get, the more I realize how lucky I am.
My story isn’t what a lot of people at McGill would call normal, and I get that. I was born in Leamington, Ontario. Until a couple of years ago I didn’t realize why it was so funny that I lived on Rural Route Number 5, but I learned quickly that most people at McGill didn’t grow up around tractors and trucks. When I was 14, I moved away from home and went to a small high school called Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, in a town called Wilcox. The population of Wilcox, Saskatchewan fluctuated between 200 to 250 throughout my four years there. To this day, it is one of my favourite places in the world. Wilcox taught me more about life in four years than some people learn in a lifetime. Notre Dame will always be a very important place to me.
When asked to write a few words about being a first generation student, I didn’t really know what to say, because I honestly never really noticed. Technically, I am not really a first generation student in the traditional sense of the term: my mom spent thirteen years taking online classes to get a Bachelor of Arts from Waterloo. She would want everyone to know she got an A in a statistics class. She is also a registered nurse. Looking at it now, my mom’s experience wasn’t too shabby for a girl who grew up at a small country school in Ruthven, Ontario. So no, I am not really a first generation student, because my mom has a postsecondary degree, but my brother and I are the first in my immediate family to pursue a four year undergraduate degree on a university campus.
I don’t think my dad ever got his high school diploma. School wasn’t really his thing. I am pretty sure that he scored better on his LSAT than my brother did, though. My brother is now a law student at McGill, and my dad is a landscaper. When I think of my parents I just think of hard work. Consistently putting one foot in front of the other and doing everything possible to somehow, someway, make things work.
My brother is a worker as well. Consistently one of the hardest workers that I have ever known. He is a good athlete. He is persistent, stubborn, won’t take no for an answer. To describe him as independent would be an understatement. But he was also a great person to grow up with.
Overall, I feel really lucky and really grateful. When I got my acceptance letter from McGill, it was like my favourite team had just won the Stanley Cup. I remember so clearly telling my best friend in high school. She had been accepted to her dream school too. Those were an exciting few weeks.
When I got to McGill, I played rugby for a few years before a few too many concussions derailed my plans of being a varsity athlete. My first year at McGill was something else. Molson was a blast. For everything great about it, Molson did introduce me to the fact that there were a lot of people at McGill with ridiculous amounts of money. We were all just first years, and everyone was trying to figure things out and find their footing at university, but it is hard to avoid the fact that money is an object that impacts your experience. In saying that, it didn’t and doesn’t have much of an impact on my time here at McGill. In its own way, it was very comforting. To know that the people you surround yourself with care about you not because of what you can give them, but because they truly care about you, is comforting. Despite Molson’s prison like structure, co-ed bathrooms, and mysterious way of bringing so many people from so many different economic, political, and social classes together, living there made me feel so comfortable at university.
First year wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, however. If one thing got me in first year, it was the extreme culture shock, even from within Canada. Taking the Metro for the first time scared me. Walking to class and not knowing everyone you saw made me uneasy. My whole life, I knew everyone in my classes and usually knew my teachers personally. On my first day of school, I remember walking down the hill from Upper Rez crying because it was just too overwhelming. Living in such a new place, and being someone who doesn’t adjust to change very well, I continued to struggle immensely into second year. At my core, I don’t belong in the city, but I really wanted to enjoy McGill and I loved the people. Still, it was a lot to handle.
My second year of university ended up being a turning point in my life. I owe the friends who were part of my life that year everything. The people who knew I was still adjusting to living in a big city, but also knew I was stubborn as they come and wouldn’t give up, helped me more than I can describe. Oddly, I am grateful for the anxiety that became unbearable on some days because it forced me to learn to be genuinely comfortable in my own skin.
What got me through? All I can say is remember that self care isn’t selfish, swallow your pride, and ask for help. You are worth it. I will leave it at that.
I got involved early in university. I volunteered with Right To Play and Red Thunder, and applied to everything that came across my Facebook page in year one. Eventually, I realized that wasn’t sustainable, and committed myself to the activities that made me the happiest. Right to Play earned a special place in my heart early on, and my work with that club and the connections that came with it brought me to the best friends I could ask for.
I am the president of a few clubs now, and founded a new club last year. I was a Frosh leader the past two years and I joined the Canadian Studies Association of Undergraduate Students Exec this year. I know lots of people on campus and feel so at home here. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to make sure my peers know that this campus has so many opportunities for everyone, and so many people who will eventually become “yours” too.
I am proud of where I am from. I am proud to say that my favourite songs are written by John Denver, Luke Bryan, and Tim McGraw. I don’t go to Osheaga, but I sure love Boots and Hearts. I think that Mac Campus is one of the best things McGill has to offer, because it reminds me of home. My favourite things to do are still making bonfires and going camping. That part of my life won’t ever change, but McGill has changed me for the better in so many other amazing ways.
I am more open to different lifestyles and opinions then I ever was before. People who live in the city aren’t weird or foreign to me anymore. I have to admit that the city nightlife has kept me occupied for many a nights. I traveled this summer with a couple friends, and I never would have done that if I hadn’t been exposed to McGill’s international population. I learned to work smart, not just hard. I learned that if you take a step back and look at all the students here, we are all just trying to make it. I learned that it is socially acceptable to have no idea what you’re doing.
I learned, very quickly, that there are so many good people in this world, so many people who believe in good things. So many people who want you to reach your goals. I have learned that everyone reaches those goals in a different way, but to be a university student is a blessing. Every day, I see people hold doors for others, help their classmates with broken printers in the library, point lost first years in the right direction on campus, let people who are in a hurry cut them in line, support small bake sales for good causes, and give money that they don’t have to causes they don’t even know about.
To me, that’s inspiring. It is nice to know that people care, and it is nice to know that someone is in my corner. The world is a bit of a mess, but there are so many more good people than bad, and that is so comforting. This has been a huge part of the positive experience that I have had at McGill.
Maybe I don’t have the same background as a lot of my peers, maybe city life isn’t really going to be my thing forever, but Montreal is pretty great, and so is McGill. My friends are pretty great, my small studio apartment on the corner of Milton and Aylmer is pretty great, Lola Rosa is pretty great, and those two weeks in April when it finally warms up are pretty great. McGill has its problems, but to me, it’s been pretty great.
I have McGill and all of the people I have met here to thank. I am beyond blessed and so grateful.
Just like any other McGill student, I complain about SSMU. I think the prices at Premiere Moisson are way too high, and I wish students at McGill celebrated its athletes more. I am a little nervous about what is going to come next for me. It will be weird not having a Dep right around the corner that sells Four Loko. Living in a world where you can’t buy three samosas for two dollars is going to be rough, and a part of me will miss fighting for a spot in the Library during finals. Just like everyone else, I hate having to walk up to the Education Building for morning class, and sometimes I wish Service Point was more helpful. I will miss it though. I can’t wait to graduate, but I am not totally ready. This “living in the city” experiment has been fun. It has taught me so much and Montreal has made me so happy.
If everything goes according to plan, I am going to finish my fourth year and earn my degree. It will be a cool moment for me and my family. I couldn’t have done it without with all the people I have referenced. I am just so grateful and so blessed.
I have no idea what is coming next, but I guarantee that McGill has done its best to prepare me for it. All there is left to say now is thank you. So thank you, thank you, thank you.