Behind Closed Dorms: Life at College

By Gillian Ophel

Before I came to college, I was extremely apprehensive of what it would be like. Too many American movies had led me to expect a drunken cesspool of intimidation and gender warfare. Instead, I am probably the happiest I have ever been, because I’ve found a community where I feel fully accepted.

Recently, there’s been a lot of negative press about residential college life—for deserved reasons. A video of a group of male Baxter College residents singing misogynistic and offensive lyrics, was circulated by media, inciting a slew of backlash from UNSW students and the greater community. Without criticism, I felt one perspective was lacking in this coverage: that of the female residents. Therefore I, a proud feminist, want to explain why I love where I live.

Young people with a wide range of backgrounds, interests, and talents congregate at UNSW, and at college we are able to create our own home. Sure, we have parties, which I thoroughly enjoy, but through college I have also discovered an appreciation for musical theatre, explored the cafés of Surry Hills, fundraised for charity, and tried sports I never would have otherwise. Our approach to sport is something I’m particularly proud of: women’s and men’s games are given equal support.

In my second year here, I have assumed a leadership position which gives me new challenges every day. Like so many other people, I’ve been given opportunities I never dreamed of and been lucky enough to live and work with some truly incredible people. By nature, I’m a shy person, but here I’ve been drawn out of my shell by the force of our community spirit.

That group spirit is often labelled by those outside our community as a source of competition and “group think”. For me, however, it creates a protective, friendly environment. There are many times when my gender has made me feel unsafe in my life, but never at college. When we go out together I know I can trust those around me.

This isn’t to say there isn’t work to be done. I was frustrated and angry at the recent events, which I believe were, for better or worse, due to ignorance rather than malice. While we do have measures in place to educate our incoming residents, we can certainly do more, and I’m sure that we will. Everyone wants our college to be the best it can be, not just for gender issues but also for LGBTQIAP+ and ethnically diverse students.

Importantly, residential college life is not separate from the rest of the world. Wider social and cultural structures are what cause dangerous attitudes towards women to exist. I see college as the perfect experiment: a group of young, bright men and women, tasked with creating the best environment for themselves. I have some ideas. I’m sure other college women have ideas, which may be based on experiences that totally contradict my own.

There is also an important role for men and genderqueer residents to contribute, as well as those outside the college system. I believe the mini-society of college is a place where we can make gender equity a reality, to show a practical example to our university, our city, our country, and maybe even our world.