By Chris Chipello
Hundreds of times a year, a group of 10 to 20 people files out of the Welcome Centre in Burnside Hall and begins a one-hour trek around the main campus.
The groups are composed of curious high-school students – many from the U.S. or abroad – and vigilant parents. Putting everyone at ease is the task of student-guides, such as Ashley Ziai.
On a recent sun-splashed morning, Ziai gathers a dozen visitors into a huddle at the Roddick Gates, so they can hear her over the roar of a nearby lawnmower. Gesturing toward the bustling boulevard beyond the gates, she explains that Montreal’s public-transit network and reasonable rents enable students to find nice apartments within just a few minutes of the downtown campus. She also mentions the university’s Drivesafe and Walksafe security programs, while noting that the city is generally safe.
Last year, 11,241 visitors took tours, said Trish Gagliardi, supervisor of the Welcome Centre. While there are normally two tours a day, the number rises to four or five in late August – and even higher around the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday in November, she says. All told, the centre conducted about 900 tours from June 2007 to May 2008.
The centre retains a team of about 25 part-time guides. In general, they are “well-rounded, eloquent” students who manage to balance extracurricular activities with their academic work, Gagliardi said. In the past year, the group has included polyglots from around the world, a student on the board of an NGO she helped found, and another who spent her summer in southern Africa working with an indigenous people’s organization.
Ziai, an international-relations major from Quebec, has been shepherding visitors around the campus since June. This day’s mix includes families from as far south as Houston and Washington, D.C., so some weather-related disclosure is in order. Pausing in front of the statue of James McGill, Ziai notes that the university founder’s coattails are sometimes engulfed in snow by mid-winter.
Farther up the hill, the visitors learn that McGill’s remains lie beneath the monument in front of the Arts Building – along with part of the skeleton of his longtime business partner and accountant. (McGill was originally buried in Montreal’s Old Protestant Cemetery, but his tomb was moved here when the cemetery was eradicated in 1875; the extra bones were discovered in the 1990s.)
Before wrapping up the tour near the McLennan Library, Ziai notes that while Montreal may be the world’s second-biggest French-speaking city, it’s also one of the most bilingual. While unilingual newcomers shouldn’t have any difficulty managing at McGill, Ziai encourages her charges to take advantage of this city’s unique cultural diversity. Making French an elective, she says, is a great way to get started.