By Neale McDevitt
Clearly, as Executive Director of Residences and Student Housing, Michael Porritt has to be a bricks and mortar kind of guy. Heating systems have to work, toilets have to flush and roofs have to keep the rain out. But he also understands that his unit’s mandate extends beyond the buildings themselves to the 3,400 students who live in residence. “We’re a crucial part of the student experience,” he said outside the Parents Tent last week. “For many students, we’re their initiation to McGill.”
This fall, that initiation was particularly favorable to more than 280 students as they were welcomed to McGill’s newest residence, La Citadelle. Once the Courtyard Marriot, the building has been under renovation for the past 18 months and the end results are impressive. “I walked through there a few days ago and I said to myself ‘I can’t believe these are student residences,’” said Porritt. “The rooms are absolutely beautiful, each with a 40-inch, wall-mounted flat screen TV and granite countertops in the bathroom. Except for the concrete structure, everything in this building is brand new.”
Other highlights of La Citadelle include extra-large study rooms and a large communal kitchen (“A Top Chef Canada-style kitchen,” said Porritt) on the top floor with a stunning view of the mountain on one side and the St. Lawrence River on the other.
But the work didn’t stop there. Renovations to existing residences also include brand-new windows in the student rooms and window walls at Molson Hall and new ventilation systems for Molson, Gardner and McConnell Halls.
Not only has this had an immediate positive impact on the quality of air in each residence, Porritt also anticipates a significant saving on the overall Hydro bill. “If it’s anything like the savings we saw in the Royal Victoria College (RVC) tower when we replaced the windows there, we’re looking at saving 30 per cent in energy costs a year,” he said. “Since doing all the energy efficiency measures at RVC, we’re saving $100,000 or more per year.”
Comfort levels have also been improved, with heating and air circulation issues having been addressed in a number of buildings. “There are very few spaces left in which you can’t open your window,” said Porritt. “And we’re almost at the point where everyone has control via thermostat of the temperature of their own room. Plus, we flushed out 40 years worth of silt and assorted things from all radiators so they work considerably better too.”
Beyond the physical comforts of his charges, Porritt is also excited with the upcoming slate of Residences events and activities.
The McGill Faculty in Residences Series, in which members of McGill faculty and administration are invited to give casual lectures on a topic of interest to themselves and to the students, is entering its third year. The informal structure and intimate setting seems to appeal to the presenters and the student audience members.
“In one session, Ariel Fenster [from the Office for Science and Society] came in and discussed the chemistry of wine,” said Porritt. “There was a bit of a wine tasting but it was also very much a science oriented lecture on how wine works, why it intoxicates you and even the qualities of wine that are good for you.
“The first year we had about 12 sessions and last year we were over 60, so it’s just grown incredibly,” he said.
But what excites Porritt the most is the new semester of Living-Learning Communities (LLC). Each of the five LLCs give students with special interests the chance to live together, organize events and work together on long-term projects. The five LLCs include Fine Arts; Environment; Do-It-Yourself; Food; and Health and Fitness. “Everybody comes into residence with a few things in common; they’re human and they’re here,” said Porritt. “The LLCs identify something else that they have in common with fellow students.”
In the end, Porritt is confident that not only do students in Residences get an added boost in what can be a very trying first-year at McGill, they are generally more successful in the ensuing years as well. “We’ve done a lot of research and data-gathering with the people at Planning and Institutional Analysis,” he says.
“And it is pretty clear statistically that the first-year students in residence get better grades, and have better graduation rates compared to first-year students who don’t live in residence. And when they move out of residence – which most of our students do after their first year – they often step into leadership roles on campus and continue their development outside the classroom.”