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The Lottery: Hazing at Go8 University Colleges

Trigger warning: suicide, mental illness, description of hazing practices, mention of rape.

Blindfolded

St. John’s College, University of Sydney, 2012-2013*

He helped blindfold the four fresher girls and made them kneel in the middle of the Senior Common Room to serve punishment for their crime. The 33 seniors encircled them. One fresher kept dragging her heels and asking them not to make her do it. Dumb bitch. She’d do it. He fetched the mixture they’d prepared earlier from his bar fridge. He held the jug at crotch-level so they could drink while kneeling. The rest of the seniors started clapping and stamping in time with the chant.

Later that night the mixture of alcohol, Tabasco sauce, sour milk, shampoo and dog food was pumped out of the reluctant girl’s stomach as her parents waited outside the hospital room. She had a rare and potentially fatal condition that caused severe stomach bleeding if she vomited.

The Justice Group seniors printed T-shirts after her near-death and the ensuing police investigation. He still had one lying at the bottom of the wardrobe drawer full of his college merch. It pictured the eagle mascot, blindfolded and vomiting, with ‘Year of Justice’ emblazoned below it. The next semester Justice Group members were elected to seven of the nine student council positions, including the top positions of President, Secretary and Treasurer, in time to welcome next February’s fresher intake.

 

Speechless

St. Paul’s College, University of Sydney, 2016*

It was hard to wave him off. Last September he’d given a speech at the Star Casino about the dangerous culture of alcoholism in Australia, part of their new Foundation campaign. None of the family had realised that his support of the lockout laws would spark death threats and online venom. She was so proud of him… and also worried.

It was late. His voice shook over the phone. He wouldn’t say what happened. He made them promise to pick him up the next morning. ‘Early please.’ He sobbed on the back seat the whole way home. The hazing rituals at St Paul’s are notorious. They found information online. He must have been victimised for his support of the lockout laws. That unspeakable night had changed him, broken him. In July he killed himself on Mona Vale beach.

 

Dead possum

St. John’s XXIII College, ANU, 2014-2017**

She was chosen as a candidate for the First Year Girl’s Club (FYGC). That night the second-year ex-Club girls marched them to clearing near CSIRO, made them drink and perform dares, and threw flour on them. They all vomited a lot, then were taken back, showered and put to bed. The next day 12 of them were in and the rest were ostracised. She was lucky. The next year she marched the freshers to the clearing and decided who was cool. Hazing happened about 10 times a year if you counted each night as a separate event. It was a way for FYGC members to prove that they were cool, make friends, and later prove that they’d stayed cool.

The male hazing happened much more often. The second and third year guys would pick a mix of freshers. The cool ones were initiated and bonded with and the not-so-cool ones were singled out and bullied. The seniors told them to climb a big tree with bottles of straight liquor and goon bags and sit on branches at different heights. They kept drinking and would start to piss and vomit on each other. One fresher would eventually fall from the tree. The ‘dead possum’ was kicked, beaten and abused. The hazing never really stopped unless you were cool and were destined to become a hazer.

The two years before she arrived had been out of control so the college governance tried to tighten things up in 2014 and 2015, banning the O-Week tradition of freshers wearing bibs and being given nicknames, but she still saw a lot of drugs, bullying and hazing. It got stricter after she moved out. The free STI testing was removed to try to control the culture. Fucking stupid idea. She cut ties with the college and with almost everyone she’d met there. A kind-of college friend she met for coffee last semester mentioned that some hazing had happened the night before. Probably the same hazing, or something not much different.

 

The Institutions

University of Adelaide. The Australian National University. University of Melbourne. Monash. UNSW. UQ. USyd. UWA. Hazing at Australian Go8 residential colleges is a topic that I cannot begin to do justice to. As the Dead Possum student remarked, every bad experience screams twenty times louder than a good experience, and for every bad word on a college there will be five good words, together forming the full spectrum of college life.

There has still been plenty of screaming, even when muted by secrecy and fear, predominantly documented at Sydney’s residential colleges.

Sarah Ng’s 2014 article cites a St John’s College O-Week tradition that strands blindfolded, near-naked first-years in Sydney’s west with a couch to carry back to college. This is reminiscent of the ANU’s early form of Inward Bound in the late seventies and early eighties, where students were left blindfolded in remote locations with no proper equipment, food or water. My mum, a student at the time, remarked that it was a wonder that no one died. The key difference lies in the fear students that often feel about revealing hazing practices. A friend of one couch-carrying student, scared to incriminate people involved, refused to give Ng details. Investigation reports reveal dangerous and decades-long traditions, faeces often found in the common areas and bedrooms of first-years, and widespread vandalism. However, when Ng visited John’s College she observed a sense of kinship with residents greeting each other warmly and doors left ajar. One third-year insisted that hazing was never dangerous and was strictly voluntary: ‘It’s like a family; it’s your brother and sister that you’re having fun with’.

Former St Paul’s College students have reported newcomers being beaten with thongs while on all fours and told to push flaming mattresses up hills amid violent scuffles that sometimes broke bones. Another ‘Inward Bound’ practice allegedly left a student tied to train tracks. A student asking to remain anonymous found the hazing so brutal that he later attempted suicide. The Vice-Chancellor has also censured the college’s ‘deep contempt for women’. A pro-rape Facebook page was discovered in 2009, and recent student texts described sex with fat girls as ‘harpooning a whale’.

St Andrew’s College also made headlines when a ‘Rackweb’ of student sexual relations was found in its 2014 student-published journal and corresponding public humiliation rituals were exposed.

A former University of Queensland student gave me some examples of hazing at its colleges. A fairly atypical haze at Cromwell College pressured students to find a date to the annual ball from within the cohort. For every day they didn’t find a date they had to wear one fewer clothing item on college grounds until they were down to their underwear. More benign hazes at UQ colleges included first-years wearing silly costumes, running around the university during O-Week and doing chants and public dances. These were also fixtures of my O-Week at a Melbourne college, and, as the former student said, while these are far less embarrassing when done as a group they can still be uncomfortable.

In the all-male King’s College, the O-Week rituals are hierarchical and drinking based, designed to place new students in the top, middle and bottom social tiers. First years had to do physically demanding tasks such as running about six kilometres right after dinner, with the last one back forced to run naked to the athletics track and back. In another ritual small groups of first-years raced to finish a 24-litre container of Yukka (a distilled vodka, lemon and sugar mixture). The losing group had to run naked past the four other colleges to the Women’s College, who were told when they were coming, and then back. The students would quickly become intoxicated and were encouraged to binge to the point of vomiting or passing out.

Heavy drinking is admittedly part of a wider problem throughout universities and around Australia. The ex-boyfriend of a Monash college senior resident said that what she dealt with ‘sounded pretty intense’, but the closest thing to hazing he’d seen as an off-campus student were the heavy drinking rituals at Arts and Law camps.

 

#Collegelyf

 Queen’s College, University of Melbourne, 2012-2013.

When I tried to explain college hazing to a German friend, citing the Blindfolded incident, he paused, baffled. ‘But that is a kindergarten. That is kindergarten behaviour… if they tried to make me drink I would just not do it.’ I experienced minimal hazing during my college years but felt I knew exactly why the St John’s student drank the concoction. When you’ve barely left school, you’re thrown into a foreign environment with a bunch of strangers and initiated into a strict social hierarchy by those on top the range of choices you have are often socially restricted to just one – participate – which you’re told to do above all else. Non-participation might mean you don’t make as many friends, attract the disapproval of your new ‘family’, experience isolation and even bullying.

Queen’s College O-Week was a nonstop initiation of nightly parties, barely any sleep and blaring microphones at dawn. We wore garbage bags and were given nicknames. First-year guys were lined up and told to crawl to their favourite first-year girl as a way of forming two-person teams. O-Week leaders encouraged the college-wide ‘policy’ of keeping our doors open unless we were changing or sleeping, insisting that college would be the best years of our lives provided we were ‘keen’ and respected them. As the disturbingly cultish rituals continued, first-years began to perpetuate the social pressure to participate, joining in on the derision of students who fell short of the rigorous expectations to ‘skull and score (goals and fellow students)’, attend events and sporting matches, and exhibit constant friendliness and enthusiasm.

Male students felt more pressure to drink a lot. I remember Queener guys skulling jugs of beer, sometimes until vomiting, while surrounded by chanting students. There were strange rituals involving male students skulling beer then writhing around on the quadrangle as part of some tradition after a ‘Turn’, the name of in-college parties. After the first Turn faeces were found on the president’s bedroom chair and in the neighbouring bathroom. My corridor had a Rum Club. Previous male students made my neighbour drink lots of rum and then dumped him semi-conscious in his room.  Girls on the corridor stayed with him to ensure that he didn’t vomit in his sleep. Sometimes a group of guys slunk off to something called ‘Matchbox’, returning very drunk hours later. Girls weren’t supposed to know about it. I never found out what it was. More innocuous rituals included wearing tweed to dinner on Mondays and the Seven Wonders, seven places to have sex on the college grounds, including on the Master’s doorstep, the chapel and the library, that would unlock some intranet profile features.

Queen’s College is selective, with students sometimes striving to succeed academically, career-wise and on the sporting field simultaneously. Danger came from the intensely social high-pressure environment and negligible pastoral care rather than bad hazing. The 2013 associate-chaplain was woefully unequipped to help struggling students. The Vice-Master simply ignored them. Ziggy, the phantom college counsellor, had been on leave indefinitely. By mid-2013 a first-year attempted suicide and was hospitalised. A month later, another girl had a psychotic breakdown and followed her. One student I saw bullied and partially ostracised dealt with it in silence. It would have taken a lot to break the code of secrecy surrounding coercive rituals and it was clear that help from the college governance would at insubstantial at best.

 

Reflections

The Australian National University

Dead Possum is the loudest scream to reach me from the ANU. Alexandra Lewis has already exposed last year’s misogynistic circle of boob pics at John’s XXIII, while Emily Jones has described a B&G tradition based on Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock. Incidentally, Queen’s College had a similar encouraged tradition of girls whipping off their shirts to Eagle Rock at Turns, while guys would drop their pants to Muscle’s Ice Cream. In 2014 a John’s student told me of a first-year driven around for hours by seniors and plied with alcohol, eventually peeing into a bottle, echoing a similar event I was told about two years previously at Queen’s. Hazing rituals seem to bounce across universities and states.

A friend at Burgmann told me that while students being hazed are given the ‘choice’ to not do things they aren’t comfortable with, everybody else is typically participating so they would be left out if they don’t.

A 2014 Bruce ex-resident described a pervasive sex-focused culture and people feeling pressure to drink to fit in. Heavy drinking and being a ‘stud’ were both glorified. He saw this as far more problematic than the tradition of throwing students into the fountain on their birthday.

In late 2015 I overheard an ostensibly voluntary B&G hazing ritual where students would visit ex-student share-houses and conceal their faeces somewhere in the house. The ‘best’ one mentioned was a guy pooing into a scraped-out butter tub and then smoothing the butter back over the top.

A friend at Fenner Hall said she’d neither seen nor experienced traditions or hazing and wished that she had because it would help to bring people together.

Positive social cohesion is the flip-side of hazing practices. For a 2016 St John’s (Sydney) fresher, O-Week initiations were a positive, friendly experience. The fresher T-shirts and nicknames were an easy way to remember names and faces and after a week she knew the names of nearly all her year group. She still calls her St John’s friends by their nicknames. While unwilling to give details on the hazing involved she said that at one point during a big sports night, too drunk to keep drinking, she felt uncomfortable and left. Three third year students immediately messaged her to check how she was and another brought her some food. On transferring universities and moving into John’s XXIII she was bitterly disappointed to find that O-Week headbands and nicknames were considered hazing and had been banned. She believed that it isolated people, leaving limited opportunity for student bonding, meaning that she didn’t feel as close to fellow residents and moved out as soon as possible.

It’s hard to reconcile her experiences with the unspeakable ones of Stuart Kelly. They both attended a Sydney college O-Week last year. One committed suicide six months later, the other remembers the first few weeks as the best in her life. It’s equally hard to decide whether her experience at John’s XXIII can co-exist with those in Dead Possum. Why did she never hear anything of this hazing? Can every college student’s truth be true concurrently?

Hazing brings people together – causing suicide attempts. College is the best years of your life – leaving you shattered.  College life is a lottery that can place you on top of the social ladder, give you wild years of partying and lifelong friends, or socially isolate you, scare you and leave you rebuilding your life. Or, in the case of Stuart Kelly, take it away.

If there is secrecy or fear surrounding a hazing practice, chances are that it is distasteful, unpleasant or dangerous. They can indicate that students are in danger of losing the lottery.

 

*Information gathered from online articles canvassing these hazing incidents.

**Information received from a past student at John’s XXIII College in July, 2017.