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Drinking on Campus: A National Problem

By Phyllis Hanlon

Drinking on CampusFrom September to May throughout the country, one hears the happy shouts of college students echoing in the halls and across campus-"Party, party!" Unfortunately, for many young men and women, these social gatherings involve drinking, which may, in turn, lead to some sort of risky or criminal behavior. Government statistics are alarming-college students spend $4.5 billion annually on alcohol; each year college students consume an estimated four billion cans of beer-enough for every college and university in the country to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. Experts agree the problem has reached monumental proportions. Serious efforts to address the issue have been sporadic and ineffective in the past. However, a new resolve is building across the country, bringing with it sensible, creative and more effective methods of reducing college drinking and its grim after-effects. 

Although for some time colleges and universities have had programs and personnel in place to respond to the problems associated with alcohol use and abuse, statistics showed that "second-hand effects" of campus drinking remained alarmingly high. By 1990, Holy Cross had a full-time counselor and a peer-education program in place to combat the negative consequences related to alcohol. According to the 1999 College Alcohol Study, programs aimed at educating students and their parents, as well as bridging the gap between perceptions and actual drinking habits in the school environment, have now been implemented at one in nine colleges. The study gathered self-reported data from a survey of more than 14,000 students enrolled at 119 different colleges in 40 states. 

Jacqueline Peterson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, says that serious efforts to battle the drinking issue began at Holy Cross when then-President Rev. Gerard Reedy, S.J., established a task force on alcohol in 1997. 

"The task force made a number of recommendations after completing its initial work," Peterson says-"one of which was the creation of the Campus Advisory Board on Alcohol (CABA)." This board continues to develop policies and strategies aimed at reducing alcohol problems on campus. The task force also mandated the formation of a judicial affairs office as well as the implementation of more intensive, ongoing educational programs. Other recommendations included the establishment of a community alliance, the cooperation of campus housing officials and more open two-way communication between parents and college administrators, faculty and staff.

Mathew Toth, associate dean of students for student development services and a 30-year veteran at Holy Cross, chairs CABA. "The committee's goal is to understand and respond to college drinking as a national and campus health problem," he says. "Every constituency, from alumni and public safety to public affairs, students and faculty, is involved in helping reduce the negative impact of alcohol use. There is a need to sensitize everyone." 

Since CABA's objectives are far-reaching, three subcommittees have been formed to explore each area more effectively. According to Toth, the "social norming" subcommittee attempts to address students' misperceptions concerning drinking on campus. "Erroneous perceptions have an impact on what and how much the students drink," he says. "The percentage [of drinkers] is not as high as they think." 

Anne-Marie Matteucci, coordinator of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education, says the common thinking that college is supposed to be "ultimate fun" and the "best four years of life" needs to be challenged. Pointing out that college sets the stage for future accomplishments, she says, "Four years of college should be just the beginning." Before coming to college, many students have a preconceived notion of what their social life will involve; those ideas often include drinking. "There doesn't need to be alcohol at every function on campus," Matteucci says. "We are looking to challenge the idea that there's nothing to do here on campus or in Worcester, besides drink."

She is also looking to challenge the notion that drinking has always been part of the long tradition of collegiate socializing. 

"The problem is more acute than it has been in the past," Matteucci says. "A national trend-that is also being seen at Holy Cross-is that students today drink in greater quantity than 10-to-20 years ago. The higher quantity of alcohol consumed leads to greater impairment problems. These impairment problems may include sexual assault, driving while under the influence, vandalism, missed classes and compromised academic work. Over 50 percent of our students have indicated that they have done something they regretted while drinking. And an alarming number of students have reported feeling depressed as a result of their consumption and have admitted that they are concerned about their level of drinking."

Parental involvement in the "social norming" process is critical to its success. Holy Cross began its process of re-orienting and creating dialogue between parents and students in 1998, when organizers added a new component to the summer orientation program. "Gateways" sessions bring parents, college personnel and students together in a workshop setting to focus on a number of transitional issues and openly address the problem of alcohol on campus. During these orientation meetings, parents and students complete surveys to identify their perceptions on campus drinking. Sessions are held in June, giving parents of incoming students two full months to discuss the issue with their child before the start of classes. 

A second CABA subcommittee focuses on alcohol policy and its long- and short-term effects. Holy Cross upholds state laws prohibiting under-21 alcohol use. Students of legal drinking age who choose to drink are encouraged to demonstrate responsible behavior. Although the presence of an on-campus pub may seem contradictory, Toth states that entry is strictly monitored and violators are sanctioned. "The pub has been here for years. It's one way of providing a controlled environment for the students," he says. Advertising alcoholic beverages on campus, at athletic events and in the school newspaper, is prohibited, but occasionally a local bar owner will manage to post "Happy Hour" signs in the cafeteria and in other strategic places on campus. These notices are quickly removed, notes Matteucci.

The tailgating issue has prompted formation of the third subcommittee under the CABA umbrella. This tradition has drawn mixed reviews from parents whose opinions fall on both sides of the fence. According to Toth, many alumni see this practice as an integral part of the school's athletics programs, while others would like to see the custom eliminated altogether. A new tailgating policy has been instituted as part of the College's comprehensive approach to the drinking issue. Under the new policy, no kegs, "beerballs," or large-quantity alcohol containers are allowed on Freshman Field. Alcohol is banned from the stadium itself and at game time, people are asked to clear the parking areas and enter Fitton Field.

The newly created judicial affairs office serves to mediate and resolve disciplinary problems, including alcohol-related complaints. The office also continually reviews the effectiveness of current alcohol policy. R. Thomas Clark, assistant to the vice president of student affairs and judicial affairs coordinator, supervises a 23-member board that oversees the resolution of alcohol-related violations. After hearing testimony and weighing the facts, the board determines appropriate sanctions for offenders, with an emphasis on re-educating and changing perceptions.

In addition to other sanctions, including probation, loss of privileges, fines and suspensions, specially designed educational programs may be prescribed as sanctions. Matteucci teaches two different classes intended to bring students through a self-discovery process after committing an offense. "Prime for Life," based on a risk-reduction model created at the Preventative Research Institute (PRI), aims to reduce future and inherent problems. "By offering age-appropriate questions and information, the class helps to identify students in high- and low-risk categories," she says. "The four-to-five hour class looks at individual tolerance, family history and other risk factors."

Another segment of the educational component is the "social responsibilities class." Matteucci sees this as an opportunity to readjust a student's thinking regarding the campus culture of drinking as well as support and promote a better alcohol-controlled environment. "We want the student to learn from the problem and move on. The information in the class challenges the idea that alcohol is necessary at every school function," she says. Matteucci solicits ideas from the students for alternative alcohol-free programming.

Since only sanctioned students are required to take these classes, their success rate is difficult to determine. Matteucci would like to see the class offered to all first-year students as a means of prevention. She does note, however, that her debriefing sessions with students who have completed the classes are generally positive. "Students often comment that they found the class more interesting than they thought they would," she says. Follow-up surveys show that 50 percent of these students have made some behavioral changes. "That is considered a major success," says Matteucci.

An on-campus peer education group, the Students for Responsible Choices (SRC), acts as a resource for informed decision-making related to all substances. To become an SRC, students undergo a competitive process that includes a formal written application, an interview with Matteucci, who serves as the group's advisor, and interviews with current SRCs. "We are looking for students who are interested in the topic and who have motivation and ideas," Matteucci says. "Their example, as well as their moral support, offers guidance and inspiration to other students." Twenty students currently serve as SRCs.

Maura Nelson '02, who became involved with the SRC during her first year at Holy Cross, cites the enthusiastic response that has greeted some of the group's social programming: "We had more than 100 students come to a midnight basketball game." Nelson adds that the SRCs interact with the rest of the college community on an informal basis and try to make their peers comfortable. David Eskew '01 notes that his presence in the residence hall as an SRC helps students make a smooth transition to college life. Before classes begin each year, students receive the names, room and phone numbers of the resident SRC, should an emergency arise. Eskew emphasizes that the SRCs do not exercise authority but act as a support system when students feel there is a problem.

The campus schedules special activities for Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week but prefers to engage in ongoing education that is both active (programs, speakers) and passive (flyers, posters and pamphlets). Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), formerly known as Students Against Drunk Driving, maintains a chapter on campus. Its membership is more fluid than the SRC's, according to Matteucci. "SADD has four-to-six core members and 16 or so volunteers who highlight a special program once a month," she says.

In 1999 the Chaplains' Office began sponsorship of a campus chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The closed meetings provide a comfortable setting in which students can connect with peers experiencing similar difficulties. According to Toth, students could not identify with the issues presented at community AA meetings. "Students have to deal with blackouts, broken relationships and hangovers, and sometimes life-threatening situations. But they are younger and do not 'hit bottom' in the same way." he says. 

In an attempt to reach beyond the campus itself, Holy Cross formed a neighborhood collaborative in 1999. The Holy Cross Community Alliance (HCCA) meets regularly to address off-campus issues and "reach deeper into the campus/neighborhood relationship," according to Peterson. Homeowners, landlords, students who live on campus as well as off, city officials, representatives from the Worcester Police Department and various Holy Cross administrators participate in an ongoing dialogue. "The alliance is currently trying to develop a number of subcommittees to address off-campus issues, neighborhood relations, community service and economic development," says Peterson. Also on the local front, Clark collaborates with the alcohol beverage control board to regulate abuse with regard to area bar and liquor storeowners.

The attorney general's office has launched a program to explore ways in which colleges throughout the state can work together to promote a safer school environment for students. Clark and Matteucci have been meeting with this group to help achieve a consistent alcohol policy throughout the commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

"Through a collaborative and comprehensive effort, we hope to push all campuses to another place," Clark says. "We are drawing on the strengths of  others." 

Holy Cross is devoting significant time and effort to research the issue of campus drinking and focus on how to change the present culture. "We realize that these alcohol issues did not happen overnight," Peterson says. "Clearly, there will not be an overnight change. We are employing steady, consistent efforts to change attitudinal behavior where alcohol is concerned." She cites the multilayered approach that Holy Cross has adopted. "Legislation and policy enforcement will not be the only instrument. Education plays a big part," she says. "Partnership with parents is another key element."


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