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There'll be no change at University of Sydney colleges without courage from students

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I remember the night I sat on the edge of my bed at college, hands numbly furling and unfurling a print-out photo of myself and my friend in our fresher jerseys. At the start of the year, she had taken the time to cut out pictures of me, of us, of our friends, and stuckthem to my dorm-room door. But over the past few weeks, I had come home every few nights to find one of them gone, the Blu Tack wiped off clean. I had taken the final photo down myself. Clothes of mine – a favourite orange blouse, my aunt's hand-me-down top, a tan knit – had also gone missing from the laundry. I picked at a salad leaf on the dinner plate perched atop my desk; I had gotten good at smuggling meals out of the dining hall.

Up until then, I could confidently say I had had a positive experience at college.

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That changed after I penned a piece for the student paper Honi Soit in 2016 revealing instances of sexual assault and discrimination at the University of Sydney's sandstone residences. One girl endured three years of hazing and discrimination. Another heard broadcast over the St Andrew's College PA system that she had spent the night with someone. Such broadcasts were a "college ritual". It turns out she was sexually assaulted. A third was heckled and slut-shamed throughout first year by boys from St Paul's over an unwanted sexual experience. Every former resident who talked to me for the article recounted college rituals based around exposing and shaming sexual activity.

I expected a backlash from residents at the neighbouring colleges criticised in the piece. What I didn't expect was for some people at my college – those I had come to think of as friends, family – to cut me out as well.

Over the months that followed, neighbours I had sat next to in the dining hall for more than a year refused to make eye contact in the corridor. Certain tables would go silent if I sat down for a meal. Rumours spread in whispers – that I had written the article for attention, out of spite, from a place of ignorance. I learned to avert my gaze as I passed someone in the hall. I learned to apologise for my presence.

Elizabeth Broderick's report is a much-needed and hard-fought examination of these institutions. Regulating alcohol consumption, ensuring better representation of women in student leadership roles and offering more opportunities to integrate students into the broader university community are all positive changes that go to addressing the structural barriers to improvement.

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It's clear the heads of college want things to be different, but while integral, this can only go so far in effecting change. The staff at my college were wonderful throughout my time there. But even so, I didn't tell them the extent of my social ostracism – as in high school, you quickly realise institutional authority figures aren't able to rewire bullies' brains. I left six months later.

In her speech, Broderick said college students also recognise change needs to happen and have "been enthusiastic about contributing to the project". And it makes sense: most people who live at college – like most people in broader society – would be kind, decent individuals who don't want bad things to happen to others.

But change isn't going to happen unless college students can stand up to the dominant culture in college.

Generally speaking, there are two types of students who go to residential college. Many are from out of town – interstate, or regional or rural Australia – and need somewhere to live close to uni. But an increasing number of students hail from affluent Sydney families who are able to pay for their child to have the "college experience".

A power-imbalance exists between the two groups: one is coming to a new environment with no social capital and the desire to find a home away from home; for the other, college is an unregulated opportunity to push boundaries.

When you put two groups of unequal stature in a fenced area with the knowledge they will be living together for the next nine months, those with social capital are able to define the state of play while everyone else tries to find their feet. All of these students are entering a new world order, where the line between possibility and permissibility is fatally blurred. Not everyone at college is discriminatory or misogynistic, but those who are can act with near impunity. Those who dissent face social exclusion. And no one wants to feel excluded from their home. Trust me.

Broderick's work is done. Future progress now rests on the individual. Culture is only going to change if college students are willing to call deplorable behaviour for what it is, regardless of the consequences.

Justine Landis-Hanley is studying arts/communications at the University of Sydney.

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