By Neale McDevitt
It is a word that sends shivers up the spines of university administrators across the country: Frosh. On paper, the annual freshman orientation period at the beginning of each semester is designed to welcome new students to university and to help them get their bearings. In practice, however – as sometimes seen in disturbing news reports each September – Frosh has often resulted in many young students losing their way.
But along came McGill Orientation Week 2014, from Aug. 23-31, and suddenly those reports on Frosh, as seen in a recent Montreal Gazette article, were full of words like “civilized,” “respectful” and “fantastic.”
“We had very few complaints from the community and very few incidents that involved hospitalization or that involved the police compared to other years,” said Andre Costopoulos, Dean of Students, when asked about the metrics used to deem this year’s Frosh such an overwhelming success. “And we were able to achieve that without putting any kind of damper on the events. We had a debrief meeting following Frosh the student leaders reported that the whole week went well and was fun for everyone.”
Daniel Chaim is one such student leader. The VP Internal Affairs for the Students’ Society of McGill University, Chaim was also one of Frosh’s organizers. “The success of this year’s Frosh goes to the fact that not only were all the incoming students safe, secure and treated with respect and dignity all week – but they also had an amazing time. That’s very important,” he says. “They were able to build relationships with their leaders, staff and fellow Froshies – and those relationships are really the invitation that welcomes them into McGill and gives them a head start.”
One of the keys to success included better scheduling so that there was less downtime between events when, in the past, many participants would have had a few quick drinks. Also, groups of volunteers from the McGill community patrolled the streets in the Milton Park neighbourhood to keep an eye out for problems. “Even something as seemingly minor as making sure there was lots of water at events, proved to be an important factor,” says Chaim. “When you take it from being an afterthought to putting it front of mind, it shifts people’s priorities.”
While Frosh is a student-run affair, Chaim commends McGill administration for supporting their efforts. “The people from the Campus Life and Engagement Office did a really great job,” he says. “As McGill representatives, they brought a different perspective – including emphasizing the importance of consent and sexual assault issues. They trained us, as coordinators so that we, in turn, could train the leaders on our staff. It made a huge difference.”
Costopoulos also points out that engaging different stakeholders both inside and outside the University helped broaden discussions and, in the end, made for a much more comprehensive game plan well in advance of Residence Move-In days on Aug. 23-24. “There was a really close collaboration between the SSMU and other student associations, Student Services, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Deputy Provost’s Office, The Milton Park community residents and police and Security Services,” he says. “It was a very broad-based, very consultative process to address what we identified as some of the main problems that had made Frosh a difficult experience in past years.
“I think everyone did a very good job identifying those problems and coming up with initiatives to minimize them – and it really showed this year in the outcomes,” continues Costopoulos.
But says, Costopoulos, the foundation to this year’s success was laid a number of years ago. “Three or four years ago we started identifying some of the problems with associated with Frosh and it was clear that a culture change was needed. But you can’t change a culture overnight,” he says, noting that the seeds of change were sewn by former first-year students who were not happy with their Frosh and who were looking to improve the experience. “It took about three years before they got into leadership positions, so this culture change we saw crystalize this year took while to happen.”
Chaim is a perfect case in point. When he entered McGill, he was looking forward to Frosh. “I had two brothers who came to McGill and both whom loved their Frosh and I’m a very sociable person so I tried to go to every event,” he says. “However, my leaders weren’t there to make sure we had a good time, they were there for the party. It wasn’t really their fault because they hadn’t been given any kind of training. No sexual-assault training, no consent training, nothing on how to deal with drunk Froshies, how to foster social environments, or how to help people talk and interact with each other.
“I didn’t enjoy any of the events. Eventually, I just hung out with my brother and I found other things to do. And that was one of the main reasons I wanted to help organize Frosh,” says Chaim.
Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, Chaim and his fellow organizers put a special emphasis on selecting and training the 600 student leaders who would be responsible for the more than 4,000 first-year students who would participate in this year’s Frosh. That task fell into the hands of some 60 coordinators – student volunteers representing the various faculty associations – who worked almost daily throughout the summer to come up with new initiatives and procedures to ensure the Frosh experience would be a positive one for everyone.
“I can’t emphasize enough how amazing our coordinators are,” said Chaim. “They worked diligently, almost daily, since the beginning of May, meeting with their faculty associations three to four times a week even though most of them had regular jobs.
“There were no external association forcing us to do this,” continues Chaim. “We, as coordinators, do this because we love Frosh and we want it to be amazing. We want incoming students to feel welcome and safe and to have fun as they are introduced to McGill and the larger community. This will be their home for the next four years or so and it is important that they start this new phase of their life on the right foot.”