An education to remember

Building on the Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning, McGill is committed to finding ways to enrich 
the undergraduate student experience. The McGill News recently spoke with Principal Heather Munroe-Blum about undergraduate life at McGill.

McGill is creating more internship opportunities for its undergraduates (Photo: Owen Egan)

McGill is a student-centred, research-intensive university, which some might consider a contradiction. How do you make the student experience a priority in a research university?

If you are going to be a student at a research-intensive university, I believe you ought to benefit from the great research taking place here. We want to ensure that research will be a positive part of the undergraduate experience, so we are working on making this a reality. Each of the more than 1,000 new professors we have recruited in the last decade come to McGill knowing they will be teaching undergraduates, as well as supervising graduate students. Every one of our professors is committed to both teaching and research. In the sixties, our students had the opportunity to take psychology courses with Donald Hebb and Ronald Melzack, two seminal figures who shaped the field of modern cognitive psychology. Today our students can read about Dan Levitin or Karim Nader in the New York Times, see them interviewed on TV, and then have a class with them the next morning.

What would you want graduating McGill students to have experienced?

In terms of the overall experience, I would hope they graduate with a sense of the global context in which we live. I put a high premium on the whole area of internships, in Canada and abroad, whether in government, not-for-profit organizations or industry. Our goal is to provide bridges to the entities upon which healthy civil society is built. And our students have so much to contribute — they are active citizens with a strong sense of community engagement. I also want them to experience professors who engage them and support them in their learning, in an environment where all questions are good questions.

You launched the Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning during your first term. What themes arose 
from that initiative?

We know that our students are independent and self-directed, but sometimes they need help navigating 
the University and developing their experience here. So our professors are taking a strong role as mentors, helping students shape their McGill experience as well as their future —for instance, offering advice regarding graduate studies or professional opportunities. We also have dedicated advisors for the whole range of decisions undergraduates must take about their courses, and for advice on how to access services they need. Our new Service Point is a direct outgrowth of the Task Force’s recommendations, providing students with one-stop support for a whole range of questions.

What impact has Campaign McGill had on student life?

In the past five years we have increased our operating budget for student financial support five hundred percent, from $4.2 million to $21 million. Much of this comes from our policy of putting 30 cents from every net new tuition dollar toward student aid, in addition to the student aid we receive from generous donors. Our donors have helped expand our undergraduates’ experience by enabling us to offer internships, research opportunities, and a range of other activities. Their gifts have given our dental students the chance to participate in mobile dental clinics and at the Jim Lund Clinic at the Welcome Hall Mission. Donors have also supported our Martlet and Redmen sports teams, and many of these athletes are involved in coaching children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

What can you tell us about your own undergraduate experience?

I studied for joint degrees, a BA in Sociology and a Bachelor of Social Work, at McMaster in Hamilton, and I found taking courses across disciplines and the field work I did formed a rich and dynamic experience for me. I was the only one of my classmates who was married at the time —to a rock musician, no less —and I worked to support my way through school most of the time I was there, so I didn’t engage in student life outside the classroom the way others in my class did. I did make long-lasting friendships nonetheless. Looking back, I credit every step of my education to the professors who took an interest in me in spite of my less-than-optimal engagement. I think every good teacher helps you redefine your sense of possibility, to understand your abilities. I benefited enormously from a handful of people who seminally shaped my thinking of my own abilities and helped me to formalize my interests and goals.