We need to do better at protecting vulnerable young students

Gabrielle Fullam reflects on the vulnerability of freshers breaking into societies

Being a Fresher is one of the most vulnerable experiences of your life. I think part of it might be that many of us enter college under the illusion that this is where we find our crowd, where we form really meaningful bonds or start to understand ourselves (all of which are both partly true and untrue). Still familiar with the hierarchy of secondary school, we try hard to fit in, to establish ourselves, and to prove ourselves to those we see as being above us, which often takes the shape of an established member in a society we want to join. Yes, we are technically adults, and sometimes even older than the society officials we preen for the approval of, but for many, the power imbalance is vast and obvious, which can manifest in deeply unsettling experiences.

When I was in first year, I took a trip abroad with a college society to be pushed around a foreign city in crammed buses. I was very excited. I decided to go at the last second when a spot freed up due to a drop out. I was convinced I was being spontaneous and fun. We stayed out late in bars and drank all night in our hostel – I’m not sure I had ever consumed so much alcohol and tobacco in my life. I remember being pushed into my hostel room with a crowd of people I didn’t know. I remember being told there were no spare beds. I remember that well.

On the second night of the trip, I stayed up late in the hostel with a few older members half-watching a movie until everyone resolved to go to sleep. There was one other Fresher, a boy who could barely stand. A senior member – let’s call him, Cathal – put him to bed. Cathal pulled me along too. We didn’t know where the other Fresher’s bed was, so Cathal put him to sleep in his own bed. I remember thinking this was caring and asking: “but where will you sleep?” to which, Cathal just shrugged.

I remember saying I was going to go to bed now, but Cathal persuaded me to stay up a bit longer. He suggested we find an empty bedroom and just chat, since he had no bed anymore. I said: “But aren’t there no extra rooms?” But Cathal pushed open a door to reveal another room with two sets of bunk beds. My head was spinning, I could barely walk. He laid down on the bottom bunk, so I clambered onto the top bunk. He complained of the cold. He persuaded me to crawl down from the top bunk and drop onto his to stay warm. I didn’t want to, but I felt trapped, and I could barely keep up with any of my thoughts.

This is the part of the story I think about all the time. Why was there that extra room? How did he instantly know where to find it? Why not put the other Fresher to sleep in his own bed? Why make me come down from the top bunk?

The second I hit the bed, I fell asleep instantly. I was so drunk. I woke up the next morning confused and unsettled, but nothing had happened to my memory. So, I calmed my nerves. But the aftermath of this strange night was perhaps even more disturbing. I felt as though I couldn’t mention it. Other senior society members buzzed around, asking other first years about the incident, but never me directly. They were trying to ascertain whether Cathal had cheated on his girlfriend with me. When I mentioned my discomfort to any of them, they hastily laughed it off, said it sounded like a weird night, wasn’t it just crazy how fun and weird their nights are? Isn’t it just insane? Don’t you want to be like us? Don’t make a big deal about it. Loosen up. It’s not a big deal. Don’t even talk about it.

In hindsight, I felt manipulated into silence and gaslit into not exploring my own discomfort. Maybe it was all innocent, maybe it wasn’t. The point was that I was never able to explore these complicated feelings planted within me, and nobody around me was willing to try to engage with me in any meaningful capacity. Cathal later progressed to a higher ranked position in the society. I was one of the ones who voted for him. I only recently decided to write about it because only when retelling the story aloud, did I realise it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t the funny anecdote I was led to believe it to be.

This isn’t a particularly unusual or notable story. Some readers will not understand the level of manipulation and discomfort experienced, but some might recognise elements of their own memories of starting out in college. It’s a classic tale of power being abused in such a way as for it to fall through the cracks, and is in fact, embedded and enforced by those within those institutions. We need to do better at protecting students who are starting college and trying to break into society life. It is not good enough to laugh an uncomfortable story off or allow it to become the stuff of gossip. More importantly, it is not good enough to perpetuate a culture that allows it to happen in the first place. I have no doubt that Cathal doesn’t think about this anymore, but I do.