University is a place where students of diverse backgrounds, having reached a slightly higher threshold of maturity than they had in high school, come to broaden their minds and are mixed together and can make friends with peers who share their interests.
It’s only natural to assume that most of our childish habits have been left behind by the time we enrol.
But hidden in a bathroom stall or the office of an equity counsellor, there are those who are still being teased for who they are or what they look like. Passing under the radar of many students, bullying is still present at university.
It’s common knowledge that bullying is devastating to those struggling to cope with the insults hurled at them while growing up, but it’s surprising that it persists at this level, in a community whose image is one of respect and acceptance.
There are people trying to shed light on the problem—spoken word artist Shane Koyczan recently remastered his poem “To This Day” for a viral anti-bullying campaign on YouTube. But despite widespread empathy for victims of bullying, the awareness of them is low.
When they do become public, the community is shocked and makes strongly worded comments, as was seen with the Medium’s coverage of a homophobic and racist hate speech incident three years ago. The question such incidents raise in everyone’s minds is: If this is still going on even now, can anything ever be done about it?
One third-year student I talked to, Alanna Shadrake, was aware of university bullying and feels that it comes down to the same old reasons. “It’s the kids who don’t do the things everyone else is doing, the kids who are still trying to figure out who they are [who get bullied],” she says. “I think no matter the age level, people will always harass other people for not thinking the same way.”
Rachel Marie Rose Derby agrees that bullying is present in university, even when it comes to superficial things like a person’s weight. “If you’re a heavier person—for example, me being plus-sized, and decide you want to go to the gym at your school, as soon as you walk in the door you get dirty looks and you know they’re just thinking, ‘Why is she here? It doesn’t look like she’s been to a gym a day in her life,’ ” she says. “You hear and see the whispers. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’m not naive enough to believe that college students are somehow smart enough or kind enough in comparison to their younger counterparts to not bully their peers,” says Ashley Flores, a second-year student.
Nythalah Baker joined UTM’s Equity and Diversity Office as an officer in early February.
She confirmed that student bullying is nothing new, although she added that, having only held the position for a few months, she hasn’t dealt with many reported cases.
She believes that bullying exists across all age groups, and because university students are constantly around one another, there are more opportunities for occasional bullying.
Meanwhile, Derby says that, far from disappearing, bullying “definitely gets worse” as we get older and better at it.
“If we’re trying to hurt someone, we know exactly what to say to get under the other person’s skin because we’ve seen how it affects people,” she says. “We know how to think for ourselves and we’re using that privilege [of knowledge] to hurt other people.
Shadrake agrees that bullying changes form in university: “You’ll hear people laughing during presentations, or people will roll their eyes and laugh and not-so-quietly insult someone,” she says. “Bullying stops being quite so physical and becomes psychological warfare.”
Flores, on the other hand, believes that the raised awareness of the topic has prompted people to consider their words before saying them.
And Baker’s take on the subject is not far off. “I don’t know that [the bullying] is greater, but I think it may change,” she says. “One perspective is that when we’re younger, we’re still discovering what boundaries are. And when we’re in college, we become more socially responsible for our words and actions.”
Although the Equity and Diversity Office offers events, workshops, and a place to confide, Derby feels not enough is being done to bring bullying issues to light. They are brought up in handbooks and during orientation, she says, but are rarely mentioned again and are mostly ignored by students.
Baker is currently working with the UTM Students’ Union and other offices to launch an anti-bullying campaign whose planning is in its early stages.
One major hurdle to overcome is the shyness students feel about seeking help from a counsellor. “If a student were hesitant to speak to anyone about their problems, I would tell them my story,” says Derby. “It’s hard for someone to open up to someone they’re not sure about, especially if they don’t know if you’ve been through the same thing or not.”
In the end, at least the consensus is that the small differences between people matter little.
“People are just people,” says Shadrake. “In the big picture, those differences between us don’t really matter all that much. Treat others how you want to be treated, no matter how hard it is.”
CORRECTION: In the original version of this article, Baker was credited with “feeling not enough is being done to bring bullying issues to light”. This attitude was in fact Derby’s. A notice will be printed in the October 7, 2013 issue.