Dorm Trauma (Mars' Hill Article)

Makena Wardle & Anonymous (Quinn)

- February 12, 2020

Disclaimer: The name within this article is fictional in order to provide anonymity to our source.


For some Trinity Western University (TWU) students, living in dorms is the greatest highlight of the post-secondary experience. Many find their dorm to be a place for connection and inclusion––a sanctuary amidst the stress of university life. This positive perception of dorm life has become so orthodox on our campus, that confessions from those who feel otherwise are considered heretical, leaving many afraid to speak up about serious issues that occur inside their residences.


However, these students do exist. I sat down with Quinn, a current TWU student, who wished to share their experience.


“TWU prides itself on a strong campus community life,” Quinn explains, recalling what they were led to believe would be their experience in dorms. “But the backlash and disappointment with dorms is never publicized or brought into the light for risk of social suicide and pity.” Having lived on campus for the duration of their university years, Quinn has experienced trials throughout. From forced participation in traumatic dorm games––which is wildly common in TWU dorm life––to living under a Resident Assistant (RA) who both ignores and utters homophobic comments, Quinn’s “on-campus” experience has been far from the picture perfect communal living that is often depicted and implicitly promised.


TWU states on its website that dorms “are not just a place to sleep at night, but are viewed as an important location to develop students in the fulfillment of our University's mission.” In fact, the university claims that dorm life will develop “tolerance and respect for differences.” Though this may be the experience of many, it is certainly not the experience of all. Some students feel alienated from their community, and this is often brought on by one specific type of activity: hazing.


In university life, the connotative meaning of hazing is the process of embarrassing and harassing others as a form of initiation into a group. The “TWU Student Code of Conduct,” “Prohibited Conduct” section states: “Hazing [is] defined by but not limited to: An act which endangers the mental or physical health, well-being, or safety of a student for the purposes of initiation or admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, dorm, or team [and is prohibited].”


Though the term “hazing” is not explicitly used to describe many of the activities that take place within the dorm communities, initiation-type activities occur on our campus that violate the conditions laid out in the Student Code of Conduct. Stories from current students tell of scarring experiences such as fake kidnappings, forced skinny dipping, and other activities that cause both direct bodily and mental harm. Quinn expressed that they have experienced both “initiation without a way out, causing extreme embarrassment and discomfort,” and “pranks that invade personal space and living areas [...] in the name of bonding.” Quinn said there is a “guy code that one must be ‘for the boys’ or else risk alienation from the group.”


So, in the name of bonding, the innocuous becomes slyly insidious. Students sacrifice sleep, compromise their academic priorities, blur their social boundaries, and become trapped in the “Trinity bubble,” all because dorm culture demands full loyalty and participation in exchange for safety and pseudo-acceptance.


The role of both the Resident Assistant (RA) and the Resident Director (RD), as stated on the TWU website, is to “work with student leaders and resident students to foster a living-learning environment that promotes individual and group development.” Since these activities were forced upon Quinn by their RA, the clear solution to the ending of these blatant violations of the Student Code of Conduct for Quinn was to address these issues with their RD. Quinn said they attempted to reach out for help from an RD with no luck. The RD, after listening to Quinn express their unease and recount some of their traumatic experiences (all while trying not to out themselves) with homophobic remarks and toxic masculinity, asked Quinn to try and take steps to resolve the struggles with their RA.


Though the advice was given with good intentions, the implications are troubling––why should someone who has been traumatized be burdened with the task of resolving the situation themselves? Further, the RD told Quinn that unless someone was being hurt by these comments and activities and came forward, there was nothing to be done on part of university administration, forcing Quinn to either come out––risking harm at the hands of homophobic dorm mates––or ease back into the silence, with no changes enforced.


The message sent by this RD was that harmful male stereotypes and homophobic slurs are only unacceptable if someone in the near vicinity is directly hurt by them. It is implied that one must be willing to out themselves to the selfsame community that is traumatizing them––and even worse, that the RD was willing to wait until somebody was hurt to take action. Not only does this devalue prevention and proactivity, but it devalues Quinn’s story.


“I don’t believe this is an individual problem as my RD believes; it is a structural and systematic issue with dorm life,” said Quinn. Though the fact that many students enjoy their time living on campus cannot be denied, neither can the fact that many feel the opposite. There is a flaw within a system that refers to group torment as bonding, hazing as “dorm games,” and humiliation as “just a part of the experience.”


Our university's faculty and administration need to hold their RAs, as well as other members of the community, accountable for their actions: this should not be the job of the victim. Specifically, members of the LGBTQ+ community should not be required to out themselves in order for their concerns to be taken seriously. Further, the victim should not have to demonstrate that they have suffered emotional harm. Conduct such as hazing or slurs is prohibited—therefore, it should be immediately addressed.


If you are being negatively impacted by your dorm, or another area on campus, that is not something that is required of you in order to be a member of the TWU community. If you are comfortable, go to your RA or RD and consider bringing a friend you trust with you. Reach out and try and see if others around have had similar experiences as you; there is power in numbers. If you are a member of a dorm that engages in this behaviour, be willing to challenge this culture and use the Student Handbook for reference. If you are an RA, think critically about the culture of your dorm and be willing to take responsibility for it. Community transformation is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of their lived experience.