Shameless at Sancta: An Interview with Amy Coleman by Lucin Sarkissian

Shameless at Sancta: An Interview with Amy Coleman was written by Lucin Sarkissian (Fresher 2021) as a student media assignment that explores the founding story of Sancta’s Shameless program, a staff-student collaborative empowerment forum established in the 2020 lockdown that continues to thrive. It is a narrative non-fiction feature. 


Within the hallowed halls of a University of Sydney college, an aura of privilege permeates the air. Perfectly cleaned carpet stained with stale vomit from the rowdy college students the night before laid beneath large century old sandstone arches. The student body, meticulously selected through a rigorous admissions process, only the most elite high school students accepted for their high academic and sporting achievements, or through that generous donation their father made. Whispers of discontent and exclusion echo across the walls as you walk along the crested carpet. By night, the focus of the halls shifts from the decorated trophy cases to the blaring music and raucous cheers, a blend of intoxicated and vulnerable residents running through room to room.

These dystopian ideologies of college culture are what you would expect to endure when walking the halls, according to critics. Although true for some, it was not the experience I had in the corridors of Sancta Sophia College.

Within my first two days of the vilified college O-week, I found myself cross legged in a room lined with timber wainscoting and the portrait of a male scholar leering down at us from above the sandstone fireplace. With approximately a hundred of my peers we were all eager to find out what the schedule meant by “5pm Shameless session.” Clusters of girls, each representing different social circles, filled the space in front of me. Some originally from Sydney, gossiping with their five best friends from school, and others who had just met, exchanging mutuals they know from the surrounding country towns they grew up in. Sat waiting, I further observed the sea of unfamiliar faces around me. Some wore expressions of ambiguity, assuming they were sceptical if this forum was worth losing the first thirty minutes of their planned pre drinks afterwards. Others displayed a definite determination, ready to challenge and explore new perspectives. 

A young lady with ironed monochrome workwear and a confident smile walked into the room. A screen lit up, illuminating a silhouette of her figure from behind, and with her signature purple letters the screen read “Shameless – Body Image and College Culture.” For the next hour, she led dynamic discussions on each girls’ unique experiences, aspirations, and strategies. The clusters opened and the new faces now had stories behind them.

This is where I first met Amy Coleman, the founder of the Shameless movement. The comfort that accompanied her discussions and heartfelt smiles exchanged in the corridors made approaching Coleman for an interview very easy.

Her office was warm with the perennial aroma of her herbal teas, lined with pictures of her friends and of family vacations as she reclined back in her quilted armchair. She began to explain that when commencing her position as Marketing and Development Manager at one of the Sydney University colleges, she wasn’t fully aware of the scandalous reputational challenges. Circulating headlines in the media at the time read: “One in four women at University of Sydney colleges is sexually harassed”, “University colleges glossed over rape culture”, “Sydney University’s colleges have a toxic culture that has forced some students out.”  As someone whose role holds great responsibility over Sancta’s character in the media, it was quickly made apparent to Amy that this would be her greatest challenge.

The issue that Sancta then faced when Amy first began her role and now continues to face is that though the college has a “reasonably positive and inclusive culture, and only rarely encounters behavioural issues that tend to be isolated,” it is the attention drawn from the broader intercollegiate community that diminishes Sancta’s status.

The tarnished reputation comes from incidents within colleges where they “come under scrutiny for reported incidents that suggest antiquated, misogynistic and elitist cultures.” These impact external critic’s perspectives of Sancta, “who seem reluctant to differentiate us culturally”.  

Coleman has found that all these institutions are getting better at responding to student misbehaviour once it has happened. Through updated policies and stronger enforcement, the recommendations in the 2017 Broderick Report on sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment are beginning to be reflected.

Though it is great to know these students are given consequences, Coleman finds that “institutions are still fledgling when it comes to prevention.”

“That is what is important to me,” she says, as she passes me a cup of her specialty herbal tea she reserves for students.

“I want every young woman that goes through Sancta to leave more empowered, ambitious and sure of herself than when she came in”.

Beyond her role, this became Coleman’s personal ambition to see colleges doing more to teach healthy relationships and to empower young women and give them tools to navigate the common challenges they face, not only during their time at college but throughout the rest of their lives.

“These tools weren’t given to me – no one in my generation nor the generations before. We all had to figure it out on our own.”

Subsequently, as a woman in her early thirties working in an all-girls environment, Coleman applied her experience and knowledge to create “Shameless” to fast track these young girls’ journeys into being self-assured, confident, and proud women.

Her relaxed stance while sipping tea out of her graphic mug, and the fact that the “Shameless” sessions were still running when I first started college, I assumed that there must be a great success story.

“So how did it start? What was the moment that made you believe this is something truly special?” I asked.

I watched her smile, reminiscing about her early days at Sancta.

As Coleman’s face lit up, she replied, “Well first I had to pitch the idea to our college principal.”

I can almost see Coleman marching into the timber office, standing beside the arched desk with the gold plate labelled “Fiona Hastings, Principal.”

“I think we need a feminist boot camp.”

Without skipping a beat Hastings replied, “I’m all here for it!”

The Shameless movement began during the peak of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, when many Sancta students were forced to go home. For the few remaining Sancta girls, they formed a tightknit group. Coleman and Hastings noticed that issues surrounding body image became profound, as many students struggled with their mental health during the pandemic. The changes in the dining servery system at the college may have compounded these impacts, as students were no longer allowed to serve themselves from the buffet, and instead were served portions from catering staff.

Anticipation filled the air as Amy stood in front of the crowded room, moments away from presenting her first body positivity forum to a diverse audience of college residents. The room hummed with a blend of scepticism, curiosity and hopeful expectation as young minds were about to challenge the prevailing beauty standards to cultivate a more inclusive narrative in the Sancta community.

Coleman began to share stories of resilience, her personal journey of self-acceptance, and the transformative power of embracing diverse bodies. Presenting significant statistics, exposing the detrimental effects of societal beauty standards and the impact language has on individuals’ self-esteem was the common theme throughout the session.

Stepping back from the conversation, the atmosphere shifted as scepticism gave way to empathy, and the walls of bottled-up thoughts began to fall. Lively conversations, with students bravely sharing their own struggles and personal anecdotes in navigating body image issues echoed through the room. A sense of empowerment and unity flooded the space as the girls came to the realisation that they were not solitary in their journeys.

With a smile on Amy’s face, she recalled the key moment in the forum. Side by side, the students took turns reciting powerful messages about their bodies: “My body is powerful, healthy, not yours to judge”. 

“This made me realise this pursuit is worth my time,” Amy laughed.

The seeds of body positivity had been sown, and it was clear that the Shameless journey had only just begun. The result of that session inspired two students to go further and produce videos shared across social media platforms, shifting college students’ Instagram feeds to something vulnerable and real.

“Students were critical to the success of Shameless.”

It has always been very important that it is a collaboration with the students for they are able to better connect with their peers, “especially for freshers that are unsure on the relationship with staff”. It gives students a sense of ownership over the events and content, creating “outcomes with a much higher impact.”

In terms of attendance and facilitating the discussion, Amy notes that “students are able to speak a young gen-Z language” that resonates with the current challenges in the college circle.

Sarah King, a student who first experienced Shameless in the same intimidating room as I did, is now an active Shameless ambassador at the college, who regularly works alongside Coleman to promote and deliver events and campaigns.

“It was a huge support for me as a freshman,” King explained while leaning against the bathroom basin we share at our college. “It wasn’t like those health lectures you’d be forced to watch at school where everyone would just zone out for the next hour.”

Standing in the bathroom, King and I laughed, reminiscing over the moment we first met. One of our first nights at college, she walked in on me staring at myself in the lifeless white shared bathrooms of the now-affectionately termed ‘middle-rock bottom’ bathrooms. I was wiping off my makeup and tears as she came in to brush her teeth.

For the next forty-five minutes, she listened as I unloaded my existential crisis onto her, all whilst a crusty piece of paper with an image of a smiling girl watched us, telling us to call Headspace. That was the first of many bathroom-breakdown run-ins we had that year, although this was a shared experience in every bathroom around the college.

King laughed as she remembered. “Girls tend to congregate in the bathroom during any sort of crisis.”

Throughout her time at college, she was eager to replace those “torn up headspace posters escaping the remains of the moulding blue tack from 2015” and successfully did so. After undergoing leadership training at the beginning of the year, she approached Coleman with the idea to incorporate Shameless posters in all the bathrooms.

“Even if you don’t realise that it is right there, it’s good that you’re at least looking at it all the time… It’s a starting point.”

Another Sancta student discussed with me the way the Shameless movement helped her. “I was really struggling when I first moved into Sancta and having to eat three meals a day with other people. At first, it felt like everyone was watching and judging how much I ate. I really hated going back to the servery during the pandemic to ask for seconds.”

“I went to a Shameless talk in my first year at Sancta, and it really helped put things into perspective. It surprised me how many other students felt the same way, and I started to feel more confident about myself.”

The relics of past Shameless posters were peeking out behind the many flyers Coleman had tacked to the wall behind her as she stirred her tea.

Amy hopes that Shameless will continue to expand and thrive within the college community long after she leaves the place. “I would love to see both young men and young women in the future embracing the body positivity movement and embracing themselves.”

Despite working at an all-female college, Coleman hopes to bring the Shameless movement to the other co-educational colleges within the University of Sydney community. She notes that the issues young men face surrounding mental health, healthy masculinity and media consumption is something that lacks resources and needs to be brought to attention. “It is worth expanding and creating a safe space for young men to talk about the individual challenges they face in a college environment.”

“It is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to cultural renewal.”

I thank Coleman as I drain the last remnants of tea from her saucer. She stands up to lead me out of her office, and as I walk back to my room at Sancta, I pass the many student-made posters lining the walls, not yet torn, or crumpled with the age of the posters I saw in my own first year.