Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 11-12
Giving my head a shake
A couple of weeks ago a friend I met at my workplace returned from a trip with a small gift for me. She said the item reminded her of our work so much that she couldn’t resist buying it. She held out her hand to display a small, simple pin that stated in black letters: “Drink responsibly. Clean up your own barf.”
I laughed, shook my head and thanked her for the present, but couldn’t help wondering how I’d gotten myself into a job where this small pin was, indeed, amusing and appropriate. I shook my head again. Do we really live in a society where responsible drinking really only means cleaning up after yourself?
Fun and games . . . and, er, enforcement
I work in a student residence that houses just under 600 mostly first-year students at a mid-sized university in British Columbia. My responsibilities include supervising resident advisors and helping coordinate programs and events, as well as handling crisis response, conflict mediation, incident follow-up and discipline. My work week usually starts on a weekend evening, which is when many incident reports are written—often related to alcohol consumption.
We do permit alcohol consumption in the residence for students of legal age, but there are rules and expectations around safe use. Rules such as no open alcohol or alcohol consumption in common areas, and no single-serving glass bottles, mini kegs or kegs in the residence, are enforced.
Infractions are dealt with according to what they are (for example, you get in more trouble for under-age drinking than for bringing one beer bottle into the residence) and the student’s previous history in this regard. Our highest level of warning is a written contract between a manager (usually myself) and the student about what their responsible behaviour will look like. The contract may include agreements for seeing a counsellor or doing community service hours.
Results from a 2004 study sponsored by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) 1 suggest that drinking patterns of Canadian undergraduate students is related to their living situation. The study found that “heavy-frequent drinking was significantly higher among those living on campus (24.1%) compared to 16.8% among those living off campus on their own, and 12.0% among those living with family.”1
What does this mean for residence life staff? We are challenged to move beyond dorm culture stereotypes. We provide support for young adults so that they not only get a formal education in the classroom, but also have opportunities to learn about themselves and learn a few life skills in the process. Students need to learn more than the ‘valuable’ “if you’re gonna puke, puke in the toilet” lesson.
Over the past year, our residence has sponsored a couple of educational programs on alcohol consumption. For example, students in UBC’s nursing program presented an active-participation event on both alcohol and sexual assault awareness. The entire residence lobby was set up with games students could play to win donated prizes. My favourite game involved shooting at a target with a foam gun and beer goggles.2 (These are some of the fun things we get to do in residence!)
Seeing effects of alcohol first-hand
Prevention and education is necessary. But are prevention programs effective? Rules are still regularly broken, and problems still arise.
Temporary consequences of drinking—such as the hangover and the random bruise on your left big toe that you don’t remember acquiring—are very familiar. And scenarios like the following are all too common. A staff member recently reviewed security camera footage to determine why one of our bulletin boards had come off the lobby wall. She saw an individual with open liquor in both hands run fast enough into the bulletin board to rebound about six feet, onto their back—the motor control to stop was nowhere to be seen, but the motor skill to hold onto the liquor remained! A familiar response to the question, “What did you do this weekend?” is: “I don’t remember, but it was AWESOME!” This answer has disturbing implications for personal safety and health issues. How can anyone ensure their well-being and safety if they are this intoxicated?
More serious effects of binge drinking are evident, even if they are not as common. One study found that binge drinking in college, in the longer term, correlated to leaving college early, less favourable employment outcomes and alcohol dependence and abuse 10 years after college.3
Context can be enlightening
In working with students who have alcohol use problems and other issues, I try to look beyond stereotypes and assumptions. This is not always easy to do, but I’ve learned that the more I know about an individual, the easier it is to talk with them and to understand their actions.
A couple of years ago, while completing security rounds of the residence, I was approached by an intoxicated and aggressive resident. He called me names that would make your grandmother’s ears burn because he didn’t agree with some of the residence policies. Because of further alcohol-related problems, this resident was eventually recommended for eviction.
During the eviction meeting, the resident was extremely polite and obviously intelligent. I learned that the resident 1) had a medical condition that affected the way alcohol was absorbed in his body, and 2) that a close family member of his wasn’t well. We provided the resident with enough refund money (normally evicted students wouldn’t receive a refund) that he could afford to live somewhere more conducive to safe alcohol use. This was a meaningful learning opportunity for me.
An end in sight?
Much attention is currently being given to this topic in the avenues of research and prevention programs. However, unsafe alcohol use on campus, and especially in college and university residences, continues to be a big problem.
Investing in alcohol use education for this high-risk group—students living in residence—is very important. But, our community of residents and staff also need to ask: how are my actions promoting a culture that accepts binge drinking in spite of being aware of its consequences?
About the author
Kelli completed an undergraduate degree in Economics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She currently works as the Residence Life Coordinator at Thompson Rivers University, while working on a master’s degree in Leadership through Royal Roads University.
Adlaf, E.M., Demers, A. & Gliksman, L. (Eds.). (2005). Canadian Campus Survey 2004. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. www.ccsa.ca/CCSA/EN/Statistics/Student_Statistics.
Beer goggles distort the wearer’s vision as if their blood alcohol level was increased; foam guns shoot foam darts—in this case, at a target.
Jennison, K. (2004). The short-term effects and unintended long-term consequences of binge drinking in college: A 10-year follow-u study. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 30(3), 659-684.