Discovering winter for the first time

The idea of swirling blizzards, icy sidewalks, snow-capped cars and bone-chilling cold is nearly impossible to imagine for some of our new international students – until they are confronted with it for the first time and it literally takes their breath away.
James McGill breaks the first rule of surviving a Montreal winter by being underdressed. / Photo: Neale McDevitt

By Caroline Guay

In some parts of the world, there is no such thing as winter. There may be a rainy season and a dry season, or temperatures may dip by a few degrees, but for some, “winter” summons up romantic visions of magical snow-globe wonderlands full of ruddy-cheeked children making snow angels, steaming cups of hot cocoa, and glittering icicles hanging from the eaves.

The idea of swirling blizzards, icy sidewalks, snow-capped cars and bone-chilling cold is nearly impossible to imagine for some of our new international students – until they are confronted with it for the first time and it literally takes their breath away.

“My first winter in Montreal was in 2014. It was the coldest winter I’ve ever had. Heavy snow piles on the side of the road. I have never seen so much snow in my life!” says Minxin Lu, a U3 student from China studying Math and Biology.

How does McGill help new international students prepare for their first Montreal winter? Through a variety of winter programming initiatives, including Winter 101 workshops (hosted by International Student Services – ISS). These fun and informative workshops cover everything from shopping for winter coats and boots on a budget to understanding wind-chill factors and symptoms of frostbite. They also showcase the wide range of recreational activities, festivals, and cultural events that take place in the city over the winter months.

October’s webinar version of Winter 101 targeted both current students and new students arriving at McGill in January, and offered an online option to Macdonald Campus students who would rather not travel downtown. According to Kally Walsh, ISS’s International Student Development and Communications Manager, the “Q&A” part of the webinar is very popular.

Anastasia Koutouzov, Associate Director of ISS, delivers the wind chill warning to international students. / Photo: Caroline Guay

“I found most of the questions were easy to answer if you have lived through a Montreal winter, but it’s the kind of thing that [a new international student] might be apprehensive about ahead of time, so it was an easy thing for us to do to ease their anxiety.”This year’s webinar attracted approximately 50 student participants.

Dylan Bertus, a McGill alumnus (BA’15) who came to McGill from Colombo, Sri Lanka, remembers some of his first anxious thoughts about winter in Montreal. “Coming from an island where we would get radio advisories about ‘cold waves’ when it hit 18 degrees, living through the Montreal winter was one of my major concerns coming to McGill.

“I remember looking through climate data online, participating in the Winter 101 workshops, and overall preparing myself what I imagined living in a freezer would be like. Ultimately, I had set my expectations so high about how cold it would get, that my first winter was actually quite pleasant, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first snowfall!”

At the live workshop event in the Brown Building, hot cocoa and TimBits await students as they enter the room; for many, it’s the first time sampling these ubiquitous Canadian treats. Mecumi Owari, a Political Science student from Japan, explains why she came: “I heard that North America is so cold during the winter, and I’ve never experienced such a brutal winter in my home country, so I don’t know what to prepare for.” Andres Cabrera Ruckus, an Arts student from Uruguay, wants to learn about winter sports. “I’m excited about snow sports; I’ve only really been skiing once.” The room is brimming with curiosity and excitement, and the participants – TimBits in hand – sit in rapt attention as Anastasia Koutouzov, the Associate Director of ISS, launches into the presentation. Students  who missed the first Winter 101 live workshop can view the webinar or register for the second Winter 101 workshop on Friday, Nov. 17.

In addition to Winter 101 workshops, another popular McGill program is the Winter Coat Project, run by the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL) out of Presbyterian College on University Street.  Staff at MORSL collect lightly used coats from various community organizations, and offer them free of charge to new international students over a two-week period in late October.

“I got a really nice jacket for myself and I think it’s going to be able to brave the Canadian winter” said Shishira Suresh, a Masters student in Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry at Macdonald Campus, who came to Montreal from India this September.

The Winter Coat Program is so popular it’s a struggle to meet demand: “All the coats went except for three left over from last year,” said Myokyo Zengetsu, Buddhist Chaplain and one of the interim directors of MORSL. The Winter Coat Project is still accepting donations, as it will also run for two weeks in January to help new international students arriving in the winter term.

Finally, there is plenty of programming to introduce new international students to all of the winter sports, entertainment, and cultural events the city has to offer, from “Winter Break Clubs” and “Understanding Hockey” workshops (both offered by ISS) to the many excursions, sporting events and winter-festival outings planned by the McGill International Student Network and other campus clubs.

To complement McGill’s offerings, La Vitrine Culturelle – an non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Montreal’s cultural activities and events – offers international students a “Montreal international student passport.” Not only does the passport give students free access to a number of Montreal cultural institutions (such as the Biodôme, the Planetarium, and the Botanical Gardens), it also allows them to accumulate “cultural credits” which can be redeemed for free admission to local cultural events and activities.

Reflecting on his own winter experiences as an international student, McGill alumnus Wilkey Rong (BA17) – now pursuing a Masters degree in Toronto – recalls that “despite the sub-zero temperatures, shorter days and longer nights, Montreal certainly turns into a wonderland in the winter – you can enjoy the carnival at the annual Nuit Blanche, hit the dance floor at Igloofest, and explore a variety of exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.”

So while local Montrealers may gripe about the cold, the dark, the ice and the snow, for a new international student, winter presents a whole new world to discover, new experiences to explore, and exciting new memories to be made.