Features | The dregs of orientation

Noah Hansen takes a look at Frosh, straight up no chaser

Imagine if the anthem taught to Arts FROSH participants was inscribed on the McGill acceptance letter for new students. I can see it now: Gothic buildings, smiling students, and in bold red letters:

McGill once, McGill twice Holy Fucking
Jesus Christ Wham Bam God Damn Son of
a bitch shit

Three cheers for McGill – Fuck! Fuck!
Fuck! Three cheers for fucking –
McGill! McGill! McGill!

Frosh provides a different sort of introduction to McGill than the one your parents receive in the mail. It’s a couple days of informal socializing and fun provided by the students and for the students; leave all the academic humdrum for Discover McGill. Frosh is a necessary service: a context for social interaction and initiation to the culture of McGill and Montreal.

But is Frosh introducing freshmen to something else entirely? Everyone’s experience is obviously unique. However, the conversations I’ve had with administrators and students indicate that Frosh distorts McGill’s culture of drinking into something distressing and regressive.

Every freshman goes through his or her own process of acclimatization to Montreal alcohol culture. Mine consisted of getting tipsy with my dad at Biftek (free popcorn?!), tasting Dieu du Ciel’s extra strong coffee-flavoured beer with my roommates (it’s as bad as it sounds), and a tequila-aided night of revelry at a karaoke bar downtown (my rendition of “Hot ‘n’ Cold” brought the house down.)

I turned to Frosh participants, a SSMU exec, and university administrators for their views on the supposedly essential experience, and on what role, if any, Frosh plays in exposing new students to the drinking culture of Montreal.

But what exactly is the drinking culture in Montreal? Students, administrators, and even Director of Student Health Services Dr. Pierre-Pail Tellier agree that a city in which alcohol is legal for first-years is a more positive environment than one with less progressive laws.

Tellier believes that alcohol’s legality “teaches students about culture and use of alcohol.” He references the Canadian Campus Survey 2004:

“The most notable regional differences concern occasional heavy drinking. The proportions of past month drinkers reporting 5+ and 8+ drinks at least twice over the period were significantly lower in Quebec (34.3 per cent and 11.2 per cent, respectively) [than in Ontario and Atlantic Canada].”

Tellier sees these statistics as proof of the more temperate approach to drinking that Quebec’s laws promote: “Quebec students drink more frequently and in smaller amounts.”

First-year student and Maine native Joe Shapell, said “I think it’s a fundamentally safer environment. There’s a bigger emphasis on binge drinking in America.”

Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson, who was involved in redrafting alcohol policies in McGill residences, said that Quebec’s lenient laws encourage “the responsible use of alcohol.” Mendelson added that “The policy [in residences] before was so restrictive that it couldn’t be followed,” he said. The rules now are simply to “Comply with Quebec law.”

I asked Mendelson whether he wished McGill was located in a city with a higher legal drinking age, like most North American universities, decreasing the challenges related to forming alcohol policy for freshmen. “It’s a challenge I prefer to have,” he said. “However, we have a responsibility to socialize our students into responsible conduct with respect to healthful behaviour.”

Frosh is unique as a student’s first University-sanctioned exposure to alcohol. Whether it promotes the responsible use of alcohol is another question.

Tellier pointed to the difficulties experienced by freshmen when adapting to Montreal’s unique alcohol culture. “For freshmen who drop out,” he said, “alcohol tends to be a part of the problem. They’re just not adjusting to Montreal.”

For Tellier, FROSH does not aid that adjustment. “With FROSH, the process hasn’t started,” he said. “So there are sometimes problems in the first couple of weeks.”

As SSMU VP Internal, Alex Brown organizes SSMU FROSH and helps coordinate the faculty froshes. She defines the ideal of FROSH experience as: “A combination of dipping your feet in McGill from a social perspective, a glimpse at the city, and a glimpse at people you don’t already know.”

In describing alcohol’s role in FROSH, Brown said “There’s a difference between cultural consumption [and] binge and party consumption,” she said. “We tried really hard to make Frosh the cultural. It was never the main activity.” Last spring in her campaign, Brown pledged to strengthen Frosh with more daytime, non-alcoholic activities.

Brown attributes much of Frosh’s success to the behaviour of its leaders. “They are some of the first people students are meeting. They should be friendly, outgoing, and welcoming. They are alcohol role models.”  

But despite some preliminary training in conduct, not all Frosh leaders demonstrate behaviour that first-years should be emulating. “Having seen what some [participants] are asked to do,” said Tellier, “the leaders don’t always follow the rules of respect.” This year, the Science Frosh beer tent was temporarily closed “because of the behaviour of the leaders,” said Brown. “They were encouraging drinking and the way they were interacting with security was inappropriate.” Arts Frosh participant Lily Schwartzbaum said, “Frosh leaders were constantly drunk and high.”

The First-Year Office trains Frosh leaders along with Discover McGill volunteers, a practice that has come under question due to their drastically different roles, and considering that the attitude and behaviour of Frosh leaders have a tremendous influence over the Frosh experience. Efforts made to ensure the leaders’ responsible behaviour have evidently produced mixed results, and suggest the need for a critical examination of the event’s organizing structure.

Some find a disparity between Brown’s ideal Frosh experience and reality. “There was pressure on students to drink,” explains Schwartzbaum. “I heard people saying ‘I’d never do this, but it’s Frosh so why not?!’ It’s not a safe environment.” Shapell, on the other hand, was not personally turned off by Arts Frosh’s emphasis on drinking: “Forgetting your comfort zone is part of Frosh. It’s a safe way to do what we we’re all going to do anyway.” Associate Dean of Students Linda Starkey, a member of the Alcohol Advisory Committee, a group that works toward encouraging safe and positive use of alcohol at McGill, applauded efforts made at Frosh: “One thing that they did at Frosh this year, that I thought was brilliant, was they used opaque cups. So you could have been drinking alcohol or juice and nobody would know. It’s to make sure everybody can be comfortable.”

Much like the conception of Frosh leaders as “alcohol role models,” the goals of Frosh don’t always materialize. “I didn’t see any goal, and if there was one, none of it was followed through,” said an anonymous Arts Frosh participant. “If Frosh is supposed to introduce students to university life, it does not do a good job.” Schwartzbaum’s views highlight the contrast between Frosh drinking and Montreal drinking. “It’s a problem in the way they frame fun,” she said. “It was excessive drinking with no purpose.”

Mendelson sees Frosh as an abrasive presence within the city, rather than the student service that it should be. “I see these large groups marching, screaming obscenities,” he said. “How is this introducing them to Montreal culture? It isn’t. I don’t understand why students would want to reflect poorly on the University that they get a degree from.”

It might seem laughable to expect students to consider their future degrees during Frosh. Nonetheless, the anonymous Frosh participant was not particularly thrilled with the way her group interacted with the city. “There were cars coming in the street and the Frosh leaders stopped them,” she said. “I felt like I was being rude. Cars need to go places. I felt guilty.” This running amok only warrants the reputation many give McGill students, encouraging hostility and creating a disconnect between students and the rest of Montreal.

Frosh’s failure to encourage responsible behaviour extends beyond drinking habits. Recent Hyde Parks in The Daily point to a lack of the social-consciousness upon which McGill prides itself. Misogynistic drinking chants exemplify a general attitude at Frosh that can create an inhospitable introduction to McGill. And despite Brown’s campaign promises to make Frosh more sustainable, the trash littering Lower Field shows that the festivities may be encouraging more than just irresponsible drinking. Reusable mugs indicate a level of environmental sensitivity, but a great deal of beer was still served in disposable cups. It seems the ideal Frosh that Brown spoke of has yet to materialize.

But there are other options. Rad Frosh, an event run by QPIRG McGill, included discussion groups, introductions to student activism, and a hike through Mont Royal Park this year. Shappell, who participated in both, explains, “Rad Frosh is about getting educated and Arts Frosh is about fun.” Fun, however, doesn’t need to be at the expense of gender parity and environmental responsibility.

Frosh is an experience that stands on the threshold of adulthood for most first-years. The law in Montreal “allows students to be treated as adults because it makes them immediately responsible for their actions,” said Solin Floor fellow Abigayle Eames. So does Frosh succeed as an introduction for students to this world of adulthood and responsibility? Schwartzbaum can answer in three short words: “It’s really childish.” As an introduction to McGill, Frosh does not do justice to a university that makes an admirable effort to treat its students as adults.

Certainly, the efforts made by Brown and Frosh Leaders deserve recognition. Frosh is clearly intended to be a positive, comfortable atmosphere. However, the experiences of the Arts Frosh participants indicates a disconnect between these intentions and the reality of the Frosh experience. “When that disconnect happens,” said Starkey, “It’s something to review.”

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