When it comes to college, the word “experimentation” becomes a synonym to the phrase university life. Many freshman fall into the traps of hallowed clichés, like getting a regrettable tattoo within the first semester or even asking one too many people where a certain building is before finally locating it. Every young adult goes through phases of experimentation, some very sporadic in duration, while others are longer lived. In collegiate culture, it seems like alcohol is an easy gateway for many to ease into sometimes frightening social situations like frat parties or football games. Alcohol even seems to be a culture in and of itself. How essential is alcohol to a student’s college experience? Does staying sober mean missing out on all the fun?
Peer pressure is a concept that does not necessarily disappear when one reaches a college campus. In actuality, the pressure to have the “full college experience” seems far greater than any pressure to go along with the high school crowd. Between making friends and keeping up grades, expectations can make a student look for stress relievers. In a 2013 report from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, college freshman are at the most risk during the first six weeks for overdrinking and alcohol related incidents due to “student expectations and social pressures.” The availability of alcohol and lack of adult supervision, college campuses offer a great deal of opportunities for students to drink; the NIAAA reports that college aged students are more prone to binge-drinking and drunk driving. The statistics do not lie: over eighty percent of college students drink and each year almost 2,000 people between the ages eighteen and twenty-four die from an alcohol related incident. On the matter of college students and alcohol accidents, the numbers only rise for people involved in cases of sexual assault, injuries, unsafe sex, and academic trouble. Why does drinking have to be such a rite of passage for most students?
If eighty percent of college students admit to drinking, that means there is roughly twenty percent who choose not to drink, or perhaps were not being honest when they were polled. A conversation with a student who does not drink can bottom out in several reasons why: religious, medical, personal preferences to stay sober are all obvious answers. Do these students feel like they are missing out on an arguably huge part of college life? Megan Moreno M.D. in 2013—who is a member of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the Seattle Children’s Hospital—conducted a research study of 107 freshman students who did not currently drink at the beginning of the study and did not intend to drink in college. The research consisted of phone interviews with the students during each summer to evaluate the students’ views on alcohol and if they changed over the course of time while at college. Although the students in the study remained at low-risk to become drinkers in college, twenty-nine percent of the studied students had become involved with alcohol. This percentage is not a great one, but it does exemplify the temptations that can occur, even for students who had intentions to be steadfast.
It is possible to still have fun in college without drinking every weekend away. Serena*, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who chooses not to drink for health reasons says, “When I go out, I’m not the only one who is sober. Going out can be fun, even if you aren’t drinking. I never feel alone in that.” While it may make some feel awkward about being the “odd one out”, others take pride in being strong in their decisions to stay sober; Hanson, another UNC freshman, says, “I don’t like to be out of control. I don’t want someone to take advantage of me or remember me for something stupid I did that was alcohol fueled. I’ll just have water and wait for when I’m legally able to even make that decision.” Freshman year is a time to get adjusted to a whole new life; staying sober can help many make that transition smoother without alcohol. Just as every person has a reason for why he or she wants to drink, the non-drinkers can make strong cases as well.
When a recent study reported only thirty-three percent of 343 campus police departments admit to “nearly always” issue charges regarding underage drinking, college seems like the perfect time to start experimenting with unfamiliar spirits, especially since law enforcement is not always the strongest on campuses. The bottom line is this: a student has free will on the matter of drinking; if he chooses to drink, he must consider his safety, but if he doesn’t drink he should recognize that his social life will not be totally destroyed. College is all about finding oneself in the big sea of little fish trying to do the same. Drowning out one’s worries and socially fueled anxieties with alcohol does not have to be the answer for everyone in order to have a good time. For those who choose not to drink, find people to enjoy sharing a cold Coke with.
*All names have been changed.