Sitting around a table inside Scooter’s, Kevin Knutson, Kara Zeilinger and Amy Zustiak sip sodas and share a bag of chocolate chip cookies. All are 21 years old, either juniors or seniors at the University of St. Thomas. The topic of discussion turns to alcohol use.
“I don’t know if I’m the best person to talk to because I’ve never had anything to drink,” Zeilinger says.
“And I’m probably the complete opposite,” Knutson says. “I had something to drink today, after class downtown. We went out and met with our group and had a few drinks.”
“We’re not nerds but we are over 21, and we go out to socialize,” Matt Gaworecki, also a junior, says of his friends. “Not to get drunk.”
Having a few drinks is nothing new for college students. But with more and more national data showing a disturbing trend of excessive drinking at college campuses all over the country, leading to physical and sexual assaults and even deaths, St. Thomas is among hundreds of schools trying to find solutions to a problem that has plagued college campuses for decades.
According to 2002 estimates by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,400 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including motor-vehicle accidents. Another 500,000 receive unintentional injuries related to alcohol consumption and 600,000 more report being hit or assaulted by a student who had been drinking. Another 70,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape and 100,000 students report being too drunk to know if they consented to having sex.
The study also reports that high school seniors bring drinking problems with them to college, with 75 percent of seniors reporting drinking some alcohol and 30 percent reporting binge drinking (five drinks in a row for men, four for women).
“I would say the No. 1 public health problem affecting college students today is heavy episodic alcohol use,” says Madonna McDermott, director of St. Thomas’ Student Health Services and Wellness Center. “High-risk drinking by a minority of students negatively impacts St. Thomas’ excellent educational environment, the safety of our students, quality of life for all on campus and in the surrounding community and our reputation.”
The St. Thomas administration has structured a strategic approach to alcohol reduction. McDermott and other administrators have spent countless hours surveying and meeting with students to find the best approach to dealing with alcohol use. What they have come up with is a multifaceted approach that includes:
One technique that has proven successful at many schools is Positive Social Norming (PSN), which focuses on re-enforcing realities and normal, healthy behaviors while dismantling the stereotypes and exaggerations usually associated with student drinking. For example, a 2002 survey of St. Thomas students showed that when asked what percentage of UST students consumed alcohol at least once a week, students guessed that 97 percent did. The actual number was 47 percent.
“So more than half the students on this campus are choosing each week not to drink,” says Birdie Ramacher, a health educator at the university’s Wellness Center. “I think that’s something significant to point out. We also are talking about students who drink at low risk and have made other healthy choices.”
Ramacher spends a great deal of time presenting PSN to students, faculty and staff and making its presence felt on campus. One PSN poster created by the Wellness Center says “In any given week, most UST students choose to be alcohol free.”
The Wellness Center also sends students turning 21 a birthday card encouraging a safe birthday. It features the photo and tragic story of Brad McCue, a Michigan State University student who died of alcohol poisoning after celebrating his 21st birthday. It also includes a card on steps to deal with possible alcohol poisoning.
At nearby Macalester College, Associate Director of Health Services for Health Promotion Lisa Broek says the school has seen a positive decline in its drinking statistics over the past five years since PSN was added as part of the approach to dealing with the issue.
“The numbers are looking good and while I don’t think it is the only reason, I think Positive Social Norming is definitely a factor,” Broek said. “And we also have anecdotal evidence that we get from focus groups and interviews as well that PSN is effective.”
Broek says Macalester added PSN for several reasons – it was being discussed at the national level as an effective tool, a consultant visited the school and recommended using PSN, and several grants Macalester was given asked that the college use PSN to deal with alcohol use by students.
“I think when people aren’t familiar with it at first something like PSN goes against people’s sensibilities,” Broek said. “We’re so used to using that approach that you’ve got to make the problem real. We’ve grown up with these scare tactics and they’re near and dear to our hearts by now. But this is a completely different shift in thinking, and our numbers are looking good.”
St. Thomas’ Alcohol and Drug Advisory Council (ADAC) tries to make sure the university – which allows students over 21 to have alcohol in their residence hall rooms, but not in public areas – maintains a consistent policy and approach toward student drinking.
The school has also updated its student violations code so that any students present during the breaking of school policies and rules (such as underage drinking) can be held accountable even if they themselves weren’t the offenders.
Jim Sachs, the assistant dean of student life, says the policy needed updating.”The code was old, broad and somewhat vague,” he told The Aquin, St. Thomas’ student newspaper. “Every year we have a thousand new 18-year-olds. We had to change the code to solve problems.”
Along with increasing the accountability students have on campus, St. Thomas’ policy also aims to curb any type of advertising involving alcohol and makes sure on-campus events for students, alumni, faculty, staff and others are run with consistency about how much alcohol can be served, when and where it can be done, and who can serve it.
“In terms of a campus environment, there are always alcohol problems,” says Brian Dusbiber, director of the Student Affairs Life/Work Center and chairman of ADAC. “But events on campus have changed noticeably over the years.”
St. Thomas also has increased sanctions against students violating the school’s alcohol policy.
For example, Dean of Student Life Karen Lange says students who violate St. Thomas’ alcohol policy face a variety of sanctions. They may, for example, pay an $80 fine, take the “Alcohol Response-Ability” class or spend eight to 10 hours performing community service.
If a student is involved in a serious incident or appears to have a problem, the university will notify his or her parents. Lange says changes to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) have allowed schools more flexibility in contacting parents about alcohol and other drug use.
“The best reflection to know the system is working is that we don’t have a lot of repeat offenders,” she says of St. Thomas. “When students violate our policy and go through the judicial system, they usually don’t go through twice. They usually learn from the first time.”
“The message getting across is that we are not going to look the other way,” Dusbiber added. “It is a visible way of saying to students you may think you should drink even when you’re not 21, but we’re saying there is a law there and you have to deal with it.”
Part of the reason so many college freshmen drink, Gaworecki said, is that it’s almost a built-in expectation of what students should do on the weekends.
“Many freshmen may drink not so much to get drunk but to fit in,” he says. “To try everything in the new experience of college.”
As an alternative to the stereotype that every social event has to have alcohol, St. Thomas has added more weekend and late-night social activities such as Midnight Extreme, which takes place in the field house and features a mix of sports and entertainment activities. Late-night movies in O’Shaugh-nessy Educational Center, concerts, campus dances and other events also take the focus off drinking and keep things fun.
“To me the bottom line is that it’s a problem that has been around a long, long time,” said Dr. Steve Maurer, who works in Personal Counseling. “Alumni have a role in this as well. Sometimes as alumni we over- glorify or misremember how much of our college days included alcohol. And that isn’t helpful either. When I talk about the St. Thomas community working at this, I would include the families of students and alumni.”
Maurer says in a typical year five to 10 St. Thomas students are mandated for alcohol assessments by the Dean of Student Life Office. If Personal Counseling decides outside treatment is needed beyond what it can offer, students are referred to off-campus programs that specialize in treating alcohol abuse.
“Is there an effective way to completely eliminate this problem? Absolutely not,” Maurer said. “The only way you could do that would be to create other problems. Developmentally the task of this age group is to experiment and try new things, and unfortunately that means some do things illegally with drugs and alcohol and are irresponsible. There’s no way to get rid of it completely, but we want to do our best to educate students and create a climate where if students choose to use alcohol, they use it responsibly.”
More than ever, incoming freshmen need to hear about the dangers of drinking, especially because many used alcohol before setting foot on a college campus.
A 2003 survey by the National Academy of Sciences said 20 percent of eighth graders and 50 percent of high school seniors had taken a drink in the past month, with almost 30 percent of high school seniors admitting to having at least five drinks at a time within the previous two weeks.
In a culture where movies such as the high school-themed hit “American Pie” depict drinking as a cool, essential way to party, and where millions of dollars are spent each year on alcohol advertisements, Time magazine reported last fall that alcohol use among teenagers is far more widespread than illegal-drug use at any age. However, the U.S. government spends 25 times as much on campaigns to fight drugs as it does to keep kids from drinking.
So here they come. They stream into O’Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium, young men and women wearing jeans, T-shirts and excited smiles. It is the middle of the summer. Their parents follow close behind, wearing name tags and glancing around as if they are still unable to believe their children have really reached the age where they’ll move away from home and begin life in college.
After everyone is seated, St. Thomas student orientation leaders begin a series of skits about the school and life on campus.
A student leader comes onstage dressed as a “freshman,” his eyes wide, baseball cap backward and swagger still a bit unsure.
“I’ve learned I can find a party every night,” he said, smiling at the audience. “But upperclassmen look at me like, ‘Can I see your high school diploma? Because you’re acting like you’re still there!’ ”
Later, 10 students stand in front of the audience, demonstrating what surveys of UST students have revealed.
“What about the party scene at St. Thomas?” a student leader asks the audience. “Let’s begin with what students say about using alcohol. Forty-seven percent had a drink in the last week, meaning the majority of us have not.”
Less than half the people standing on stage sit down, the remaining majority demonstrating that not every St. Thomas student is interested in alcohol consumption.
“Interestingly enough, when we asked students how many of their classmates they think went out drinking in the last week, the answer they gave us was 97 percent,” the narrator says. “Which just goes to show you the perception of what the social life is like on campus isn’t quite the reality.”
On a separate day of orientation activities, students spend an hour watching a PowerPoint and video demonstration that discusses alcohol’s role in sexual assaults.
“With the large majority of people in sexual assault situations, at least one of the two parties has been drinking,” a group leader tells the audience of incoming freshmen as they sit inside the 3M Auditorium on south campus. “If alcohol was taken out of the mix, it would greatly reduce the instances of sexual assault. So if you choose to drink, you need to be aware of the consequences of that behavior.”
A video made by a former UST student puts faces to the facts of drinking and sexual assault. The short film starts with a typical house party, showing a girl and guy flirting and drinking. The guy ends up convincing the girl to leave the party, alone, and later sexually assaults her. The assault, of course, is not shown but the young woman’s regrets the next day are discussed. “I thought it was really disturbing,” one incoming freshman offers up in a group discussion after the movie. “It made you see what was possible in that kind of situation.”
Knutson, Gaworecki, Zeilinger and Zustiak haven’t been incoming freshmen for some time, but the 21-year-olds aren’t too far gone into their collegiate careers to forget the excited feelings of being away from home for the first time and wanting to experiment with new things. They also discussed how the dominant concerns of many students are grades and socializing, and that alcohol remains a key component in socializing.
“It was really hard to find people freshman year who would want to do things without alcohol,” Zeilinger says. “But as I’ve gotten older it’s been interesting to see. I go to the on-campus activities and I’ll have fun. But then other times I may be with a bunch of people who have to drink first to have the same amount of fun that I do.”
Knutson says he thinks St. Thomas is doing the right thing in how it addresses the issue of alcohol.
“I sat in on a few of the orientation sessions about alcohol,” he said. “They’re telling students the right stuff. The facts were there and there were kids sitting around me going, ‘Gee, I didn’t know that.’ So St. Thomas is trying, and I guess it’s working. But whether or not that affects the decisions students make later … I don’t know.”