If These Walls Could Talk

By Kenji Marshall

I’ve been finding myself glancing at clocks a lot; lecture has become a waiting game, and evenings are coupled with the complex mental gymnastics of how long I can procrastinate, do some work, and still fit in five hours of sleep. I’m ready for this year to end, and I’ll tell you why.

When I first arrived in Montreal, I had the first-year fits. My palms were clammy, my heart was thumping in my throat, and I was simulating simple introductions in my head to sedate my nerves— “Hey there I’m Kenji, what program are you in, where are you from?” “Wow cool!” — but I didn’t feel like I could outwardly show my nervousness. I hugged my parents, told them good-bye and dismissed them from my life with forced nonchalance to downplay the significance of that moment.  I started my time at McGill by erecting a façade, because to be engaged in the culture, anti-sociability had to be smothered, smiles had to be gleaming, and approachability, personability, and friendliness became the cardinal virtues. This starts in frosh, then it creeps into residence, and then it becomes pervasive and unavoidable in engineering culture.

There is an absolute preconceived understanding of what frosh is supposed to be, how residence life should unfold, and how engineers should act. Frosh should, quite simply, be “the best time of your life.” In residence, you’re meant to grow into your own skin, learn to express yourself, and find friends for life. As an engineer, I should complain about my workload sarcastically, then cope with life through a “work hard play hard” régime.  These notions are romanticized and idealized, but it’s hard to know that at first, so when you enter McGill as a first year, you’re poised to set off on this adventure where reality must align perfectly with the fantasies you’ve constructed in your head. However, once you start to mold your behavior to these unrealities, it’s easy to take it too far, and lose touch with authenticity. This doesn’t come from a place of pessimism, but university life will have very real issues for a lot of people, and once you build up this barrier between expectation and reality, it’s difficult to be vocal about these issues.

Not to be misunderstood, residence has been a good experience, frosh was an incredible moment in my life, and I feel privileged to be a part of the engineering culture. However, though inclusivity is touted at every turn, it seems the case that, within the context of these institutions, emotional vulnerability, fear, and unhappiness are signs of weakness; expression garners others’ sympathy, but it sets you back in the cultural standing.  “Hygiene de vie,” as it is so sarcastically dubbed, has turned into a meme, and that is a pushback on inclusivity and this school’s emotional framework. As an engineer, I’m exposed more to advertising about the next power hour, than I am to mechanisms for emotional support, which speaks volumes to the engineering mindset. This lifestyle can feel insulated from support and security, which is a tremulous situation that can have tangible consequences. However, there is no cultural solution I know of, nor do I think we need one — things here have deep roots, and in many contexts, it is an extraordinary school to be a part of. If anything, addressing these issues starts with the student and breaking down these walls in a safe space, with people you trust. These walls won’t do the talking for you.  

My first year was by no means a bad year, and I only write this to reflect on an environment I’ve had the privilege of observing this past year. This is something that I’ve been picturing since the beginning of high school, when post-secondary education began to materialize on my life’s horizon. I’ve been painting pictures in my head, turning things over, and trying to understand what to expect. I got it all wrong, but I would’ve been more surprised if it was the other way around. University is a raging, convoluted and emotional experience that is a cruel, flawed, but powerful way to shape you as a young adult. As this winter semester enters its twilight, although first year had its issues, it has been one of the most eventful and exciting times in my life, and I’m insatiably curious to see where the rest of my time here will take me.

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