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Holding the Mirror with Dr Hester Wilson

November 30, 2016

Holding the Mirror with Dr Hester Wilson

As a result of criticism in Honi Soit, the Sydney Morning Herald and other forums in May this year, the College has undertaken a Review of Culture at College: Holding the Mirror.

Can you tell us a little about the ‘Holding the Mirror’ Project?
The Holding the Mirror Project is part of our annual Leadership Training. This year we added an extra component to find out more about our student’s experience of culture at College.

We had some interesting survey results, so in order to explore further we organised 15 small-group forums in including an LGBTI, a women’s only and a men’s only session. Over 100 students, parents and alumni attended. These forums were part of the ongoing leadership training, and all of our 2016 leaders were able to be involved in the process. Before the end of the year, I will be engaging with 2017 leaders and students to see if they wish to be involved as a student mentor and to discuss how we can change for the better; so it is not just how the administration staff will continue to change, but also how the students will move forward to improve Andrew’s.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?
We want to continue to create a safe space for everybody at St Andrew’s – no matter where you come from and who you are in the world, we want our students to know that this is a safe space to be in, that we respect you and want to engage with you.  There is also an understanding that St Andrew’s has a self-governing hierarchy and that if you are higher in that hierarchy then you have a greater responsibility for your behaviour, how you model those behaviours and how you encourage people to feel safe.

Understanding that the attitudes in College will be reflective of the greater Australian community, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be in front of the curve, because we host a group of young adults who are intelligent and are developing as human beings. We are getting to the point that it’s not just about academics, it’s about health, wellbeing and personal safety. It’s about making it clear about what we want the College to be.

How has the Students’ Club responded to this project?
This process was put together with the 2016 Student Leaders, so there were meetings that discussed how we organised the project. All the questions in the surveys were developed with student consultation. We then went through the data from the surveys and used this as the basis for our discussions in the forums.

Our current 2016 Leaders then lead the forums in partnership with experienced external facilitators. I kept myself separate from the forums as I wanted it to be a completely student lead initiative with them having the conversations and thinking it all through.

How does this fit into what we’ve been doing with the Students’ Club over the past decade or so?
It was a chance to step back and examine College life now. One of the challenges in any community is that you have a dominant culture which is very easy to see, and if you are part of that dominant culture, everything is fine. Yet, there are other groups in College that aren’t as visible. It is interesting to see the students from that dominant cultures look at the results and find that experiences in College can greatly vary. We have had students attend LGBTI forums just because they wanted to understand the experiences of the LGBTI community. There are still traditions at College that can exclude minority groups and there needs to be gradual changes to ensure all cultures are comfortable and included.

What changes have you seen in culture at College over the past decade?
In terms of extra-curricular, a much more equal sense of all the activities. Sport, drama, music, art, and community work are now of equal importance, moving away from the sense that rugby and rowing are the dominant activities. In the past you’d have a student who is a great soccer player, and a great piano player, but the soccer would give him the ‘status.’ This is no longer the case. The InterCol Cultural Competition, the Palladian Cup, has been great in making it clear that College is a safe and encouraging place for everyone to showcase their talents.

Also, the idea that in order for you to be accepted into College you need to drink has changed. It is certainly not the case for many people now. If you are over 18 it is legal and it’s up to you if you choose to drink and you need to take responsibility for that. There are the subtle peer pressures in Australian society, where if you don’t drink you can be excluded or that we have to drink when we celebrate. I think there is now recognition that you don’t need to drink to have a good time. We also know that the two things that change drinking behaviour are cost and availability, so the rising cost of alcohol has made a change.

Another change is the diversity of Freshers coming into College. We will be collecting more data on this but we do know the percentage of young people coming from governments schools has increased – when I first started it was around 4% and now it is closer to 20%. The scholarship program has been at the forefront of this change. When we go through our applicants we find some exceptional young people that we want to become a part of our College, and their presence and experience can then help to change attitudes. St Andrew’s has its traditions, but we need to determine which ones are important to keep and which traditions we can do without – that’s becoming clearer with a more diverse group of students.

Is this part of the Broderick Review that has been commissioned by the University of Sydney? If not, how does it fit into that Review? Is Liz Broderick aware of our Review? How has she responded?
I have been in conversation with Elizabeth Broderick and her colleague Alex Shehadie about our process: I didn’t want to set it up in opposition, or do the same work they have been commissioned to do. We have been through the surveys and the small forum process and Alex sat in on two of our forums. Holding the Mirror is separate to the Broderick process, but it is something that we are doing in parallel to their Review. What I hope will come out of our Review is that we have been working on cultural change over a number years and we will see this reflected in Broderick’s Report. We understand there is more work to do and I am very enthusiastic about Broderick’s Review; they can depend on the College to solidify and continue their work. It is an important to have that independent eye, which is also one of the reasons I wanted independent facilitators to come in for the process. Elizabeth was very supportive of the process and encouraging about what we need to do to make future changes.

What are the next steps? In 2016, 2017 and beyond?
We will be moving on with the changes the College, Students’ Club and the community will make and will be having more meetings with senior students and more training throughout the start of next year. The Broderick process will continue in 2017 and possibly the year after. In terms of the internal surveying, we will likely do that every second year but it’s important that we have got a tool implemented to get these results. There are some things to add to it, but it’s going to give us something we will be able to look at over time to see how we are tracking. There were some really important and encouraging initiatives that came out of the process this year; one of our students starting an LGBTI forum for InterCol, and staff celebrated “Wear it Purple Day” on 29 August to let the student community know that we support them and we want them to be proud of who they are. Mostly, the survey gave students the chance to speak and to be heard, and now the next step is deciding how we and the students are going to implement these changes. We have made some positive changes already and we will continue to develop and ensure everyone feels safe and supported at St Andrew’s.

While we were particularly interested in surveying currents students and recent alumni, we took the opportunity to survey every member of our community in late August, with the following response rates:

  • Current students – 63%
  • Alumni 2002–2015 – 5%
  • Alumni pre-2002 – 5%
  • Parents, Councillors, Staff and other members of our community – 7%

An excerpt from this article is displayed in the November 2016 issue of Blue & White Magazine. 

Lauren Ribbon – Communications Officer.

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