Behind the scenes at McGill's Open House

Behind the scenes at McGill's Open House McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 27, 2005 - Volume 37 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > January 27, 2005 > Behind the scenes at McGill's Open House

Behind the scenes at McGill's Open House

Be on the lookout for a live owl, an electric snowmobile and free hockey tickets. It will be anything but an ordinary day on campus this Sunday as McGill welcomes visitors far and wide to Open House. It's that time of year again when the university shows off its diverse strengths and attractions to thousands of would-be newcomers.

Open House began as a local recruiting strategy hosted every three years, but has since become an annual extravaganza welcoming prospective applicants from all over Quebec, Canada and the U.S. Making it happen requires nearly a year of committee work, hundreds of volunteers and no small amount of logistical wizardry.

Caption follows
Carolina Perez Locas and Jonah Kirkwood (foreground) with Ahmed Al-Alawi and Andrew Ghetler (background) in a lab in the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry. Their department is just one of Macdonald Campus's many to be setting up downtown this Sunday. Pass by their table for free chocolate!

Events Administrator Debra Blanch is charged with the task of overseeing Open House. Although the event flies by in five short hours, Blanch knows better than anyone that it represents the culmination of meticulous planning and unflagging energy. Ultimate success, she says, resides in the work of many student volunteers and unsung heroes from diverse sectors of the campus. Everyone from McGill's graphic designers at Instructional Media Services (formerly ICC) to the Facilities' Special Events staff lends a hand. "These people are incredible," says Blanch. "They're scaling buildings to put up banners for Open House.

"A large number of people deserve to get credit," she explains. "It's the day when everyone is an ambassador."

Preparations begin as early as the spring when a date is chosen and deliberations are made regarding goals and strategy. Come the fall, news of Open House is listed in CEGEP agendas and newspapers, and promotional material accompanies McGill's recruiters in their visits to campuses throughout the Northeast. The groundwork set, crunch time begins for the Open House team in the months of December and January.

During the course of these several harried weeks, myriad logistical details must be solved, ranging from security, to traffic circulation, to the provision of food to hundreds of volunteers. Other considerations include stuffing thousands of visitor bags and arranging for free shuttles to ferry in CEGEP students from three different regions of Quebec. At this time, too, the team prepares to implement fresh ideas that it has developed since the time of the last Open House. Past ideas that have been carried forward include the shuttle service as well as door prizes -- including a tuition waiver —contributed by Development and Alumni Relations. Visitors will also enjoy the opportunity to take in a free Martlets hockey game.

Caption follows
Open House student volunteers Sevine Al Assaad, engineering, and Robyn Borland, education, stuff bags with giveaways for the big event.
Owen Egan

Meanwhile, staff on the ground are busy preparing the campus for the huge influx of attendees. At Special Events, Shannon Lenhan and Peter Baggio have their hands full hanging banners and otherwise facilitating an event that exhibits 21 faculties and over 300 programs of study.

"We help out with what's needed for traffic and all the people that are coming. And there's over 100 tables to be set up, plus chairs, podiums and flags," says Baggio, adding with a laugh, that "by Sunday night, you're pretty glad it's over."

Sunday is showtime, and everything is in place for the departments to strut their stuff. Although the logistics of Open House are a university-wide effort, the actual content of the exhibition is left up to the individual departments.

"We let the faculties decide how to put their best foot forward," explains Marketing and Events Manager Christine Tutt, another contributor to the Open House effort.

Caption follows
Courtney Purcell checks out a fully-grown saw-whet owl from Macdonald Campus at a previous Open House.
Owen Egan

The discretion provided to the faculties is slated to produce intriguing results this year. Macdonald Campus will be continuing its tradition of bringing a slice of the wild to its downtown counterpart: a contingent will arrive this year bearing an avian offering -- a live owl. There will also be representatives from different departments talking about the latest possibilities in food science, parasitology, and bioresource engineering. Meanwhile, aspiring aesthetes coming to Open House can anticipate tours of the Faculty of Music and the Department of Art History and Communication Studies. And for those with a penchant for varsity sports, the athletic facilities will be giving guided tours.

Over at the Faculty of Engineering, various departments are going all-out to provide a unique experience for the many guests who will be pouring through their halls. Some of the more memorable sights are sure to be displays of a glider and a solar-powered car, and an electric snowmobile.

"We try to really promote engineering as a career, and you can't do that from behind a central desk -- it has to be more visual," says Judy Pharo, who is a student adviser within the faculty.

According to Pharo, Open House has come to be meaningful to the engineers on several levels. While the event is an important means of attracting newcomers to the faculty, it is also a time for student representatives from each department to come together and "develop leadership skills by organizing tours and displays."

As with so many other areas of Open House, preparations in the Faculty of Engineering likewise entail considerable energy. For months, teams of up to 30 students and their professors work together to create enticing projects and displays that reflect the knowledge and passions of their department. This year, all of the labs will open, including those used for detonation and for biomedical development. While Open House means a lot of work for many in Engineering, it is also a favourite time of year for the faculty.

"Initially, it was just a recruiting strategy, but then we realized it was one of the few times we had an opportunity to really come together as a community," observes Pharo.

As Open House continues to evolve year by year, several changes to the event have become apparent. This year, of the approximately 3,500 visitors, nearly half of them will arrive from outside Quebec, and many will be visiting graduate programs.

"Open House used to have a very undergrad flavour," says organizer Blanch, "but the appeal is much broader now."

As for the future of Open House, there have been tentative discussions of moving the event to the fall. Such a shift, however, would require taking into account a host of new considerations, such as Homecoming and the timing of admissions deadlines.

For the present, Blanch is concentrating on "just pulling it off" and preparing to ensure that everyone will be set for the big day. Ultimately, the spirit of Open House is perhaps best expressed by another of Blanch's colleagues, Cynthia Lee, who has contributed to media relations for the event: "There are 20 people behind every person the visitor meets at the door. It's a real labour of love."

Open House takes place this Sunday, January 30, from 11 am to 4 pm. Go to for more details.

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