Features | Adventure: Life under fluorescent lights

Will Vanderbilt bears the effects of 108 consecutive hours on campus

Thirty years ago, being a student leader came with an added perk – an apartment on the fourth floor of the Shatner building. SSMU executives spent their days on campus and in offices on the ground floor; late at night, they climbed the narrow staircase to the residence level. There are several legends of late night deals going down in the proverbial back room, and it’s rumoured that the apartments were converted into office space in the late seventies after the SSMU president crossed a boundary that struck a personal chord with the principal.

It is distressing that a student would ever consider the opportunity to spend most of his time in one place a benefit, especially when that place was the Shatner building – a concrete block, built in the form of a nuclear fallout shelter. Nevertheless, Daily editors and SSMU execs still spend at least 30 hours a week within the building’s walls, in addition to the time spent doing normal things on campus, like going to class.

Even for students not bound to campus offices, staying at school until midnight or even 2:45 in the morning (when the Schulich library closes) is a common occurrence. Given the disproportionate amount of time students spend at school, I decided to see how much more effort it would take to spend one entire school week on McGill’s downtown campus: from 9 a.m. on Monday through to 9 p.m. on Friday. I set only a few rules – I would not leave McGill property, I would follow all of the University’s building regulations, and I would sleep in a different location each of the four nights.

I arrived Monday morning with a backpack full of books and clothing, and a bag of snacks to get me through the week. I wouldn’t be able to leave campus to grab food, so I smuggled in a box of granola, some instant oatmeal, and some Hershey’s kisses for tough times. I dropped everything off in the Daily’s office – storing things there is a fringe benefit of editor-ship – and began my adventure.

McGill building regulations stipulate that all normal academic areas close at 11 p.m., but afterward, students in almost every faculty have access to some kind of 24-hour study space. An Arts student ID card beeps into two study rooms on the south side of Leacock, as well as the Ferrier building’s after-hours computer lab and lounge, while a Science card lets students into the entire Burnside complex. Engineers have access to the McConnell and Trottier buildings. Throughout the week, I relied on my Arts & Science ID card and those of a few friends, to gain access to some of these buildings.

Falling into even a half-decent sleep in any public space at McGill is nearly impossible. During my four nights on campus, the constant threat of being woken by a guard, porter, or fellow student kept me from feeling any sense of security. That prospect instilled a sense of fear, so great that I chose to force myself to stay awake and read rather than face the prospect of being apprehended by a guard and told to go home. In addition, people stayed awake nearly every night doing actual work until at least 3 a.m., and sometimes until four or five in the morning. Intentionally falling asleep while classmates were studying felt wrong: if they were awake and still working, shouldn’t I be as well? Instead of trying to sleep, I kept myself awake with coffee and school assignments, waiting anxiously for my peers to go home so that I could nap in peace.

Once alone, I faced another set of problems. None of the spaces, including faculty lounges and study areas, have accessible light switches. Where there is furniture, it feels as though it was designed to keep students awake, with thin padding and hard, tall backs. In the Burnside basement, chairs can be arranged into a bed-like shapes, but the heat is set at unbearably high levels. Combined, these factors severely limited my ability to get any good sleep.

But catching a few hours here and there seemed to be just enough to get me through the first two nights. I’d spend two hours in the Leacock study rooms, get creeped out by the eerie solitude, move to the Arts lounge on the second floor of Ferrier. At seven o’clock, when most of McGill’s buildings open, I’d walk across an eerily deserted lower campus to the Shatner building, which has tons of dimly-lit couch space available during normal school hours, and no McGill security guards to wake me up.

Later in the week, I grew much more comfortable with my lack of private space. I managed to sleep for four straight hours on Wednesday night, which was the longest single period of rest I experienced all week. But by Friday, I was on an incredibly short rope – I couldn’t think straight, and staying alert in class was a chore. I was unshaven, smelly, and out of chocolate. My walk home felt surreal, and once there, I fell immediately into the deep, dark abyss of my bed. I slept until four the next afternoon.

It is possible to live on campus. But I wouldn’t recommend it. The University changes when the sun goes down. The frenetic daily activity vanishes, and along with it, the need to make random conversation, or say hi to a stranger. Even when people are around, you’re only aware of a pervasive loneliness. There is no contact – only a feeling of being alone.



Who has access: Engineering and Computer Science students

Seating: Many couches on the first two floors, and swivel chairs in the upstairs computer labs

Light: Flourescent bulbs

As one of the newer buildings on campus, Trottier is the only place you can go late at night without soviet-bloc architecture. Unfortunately, that also means it has floor-to-ceiling windows. Large, cushy couches dot the first two floors, but the nearby windows and long, lit-up walking path with 24-hour security patrol take any plans for sleeping there long-term off the table. Upstairs, computers line the walls, and engineers and Computer Science students have been known to spend hours grueling away at lines of code. Legend has it that a few weekends every year, a massive group of melanin challenged youths gather upon the labs for a massive gaming rave.


Who has access: Science Students

Seating: Moveable couch sets, and classroom-like swivel chairs.

Light: A mix of yellow spotlights and white fluorescent units

Burnside is a mecca for dreary-eyed science students who need a place to study late into the night. Massive computer labs are open all hours, with quasi-free printing, and those who get bored can ride the elevator up and down the 13 floors. When you’re tired of that, there are a bunch of couch segments, which can be arranged into a shape that resembles a bed. Failing that, head to one of the faculty lounges on the upper floors (accessible only with a door combination). I ended up here two of my four nights, because it’s a hold steady at three in the morning when you’re tired and need a place to lay.


Who has access: Arts Students, B.A&Sc. students

Seating: A table, and some large leather chairs

Light: White fluorescent bulbs

At the very end of a winding hallway on the second floor of the Ferrier building is an awkwardly-shaped room designated as the “Arts Lounge.” It has a microwave, a few vending machines, and a blue-and-gold-checkered floor. Oh, and a giant wall of windows onto the hallway. I got two hours of shut-eye here one night, but couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if a security guard walked down the hallway on his rounds. Also, there’s a light switch in the far corner…. I only found it on my way out of the building at 7 a.m. There’s a huge 24-hour computer lab on the third floor, as well.


Who has access: Arts Students, B.A.&Sc. students

Seating: Two bunker-like study rooms with tall

chairs and cushy benches

Light: Bright white flourescent bulbs, and too many of them

While the Leacock building is full of studying nooks, two large gates are closed at 11 p.m.-, and the only spots left are in the glass-walled, bright coloured rooms on the ground floor. The far, green room has some soft diner-style booths to sit at, but otherwise, the seating is hard, plastic, and uncomfortably tall. I started my first night there, but moved on around 2 a.m., distracted by another student who refused to stop working, and go home.

Photos by Chase Moser / The McGill Daily