Sometimes it takes a tragedy to wake people up. Sometimes, awareness of the potential beats tragedy to the punch.
At North Dakota State University, George Wallman heard the alarm at a 1990 presentation by Dr. Richard P. Keeling, one of the leading experts in the United States on wellness related issues including alcohol abuse and misuse.
Ill never forget what he said, its memorized, it was one of those presentations that it was just imprinted, and it went like this: They know what they need to know, but they dont do what they need to do. Meaning, if you gave this generation of students an exam related to risks of alcohol, theyd do pretty well on answering questions. Intellectually, cognitively, they know what they need to know. Theyve been taught. Education programs have registered, Wallman says.
But what they do is what they see. And what they see is culturally based, and its a tremendous effect of the media, of commercials, of ads that tell people in subtle ways that you can find your mate, or you can have sex by drinking this product, or you can be well-liked.
NDSU President Joseph A. Chapman charged Wallman, vice president for student affairs, with developing initiatives to combat binge drinking, and leaders on campus are thinking innovatively to battle excessive use of alcohol by students on and off campus.
NDSUs Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs, comprised of administrators, faculty, staff, students and community members, studied the issue for close to two years, and made a long list of recommendations for increasing and improving leadership, resources, education and research. In short, members of the commission are calling for a change in college students culture in which the excessive use of alcohol is considered a norm.
Students are the leaders
The students are paramount in finding solutions to effectively addressing these problems, says Chuck Peterson, dean of the College of Pharmacy and a member of the commission. Its really got to come from them. Peterson quotes Keeling, saying that we may call things fun, and we call things entertaining, but what kind of a culture would intentionally get around in a circle and watch somebody, maybe their closest friend, drink him- or herself to death?
Peterson believes that risk-taking ends up escalating as a natural, progressive process, and that now it has gotten to the point that truly, in many instances, it is a life-threatening situation.
Leaders are working to avoid the tragedy of Byung Soo Kim, a University of Michigan engineering student who died after celebrating his 21st birthday with 20 shots of scotch in 10 minutes. According to an Associated Press story on Nov. 14, 2000, he died at a hospital where he had been admitted with a blood-alcohol level of 0.39 percent, nearly four times the legal limit for driving.
Looking back at the story about Kims tragic death, Keeling suggests an appropriate question is What is it about us and this community and this culture that sustains the periodic occurrence of those kinds of events? The problem is not awareness, information, skills, blood alcohol levels, rules and regulations, he says. The problem is deeply rooted in the community and social norms.
NDSUs leadership in drawing students into finding solutions starts with Laura Oster-Aaland. As director of orientation and student success, she is overseeing the campus effort to reduce high-risk consumption and underage drinking, and has recently hired a student coordinator for the program. The student community organizer will work with Oster-Aaland to implement interventions such as weekend programs, network student organizations and make strategic recommendations intended to change the culture on campus.
In addition, students from an advanced organizational communication class are conducting a communication audit of the campus to study messages students receive in relation to alcohol. Theyre looking at faculty and staff, the administration and students to evaluate the current messages and beliefs about alcohol.
Oster-Aaland sees her role as one spoke in a wheel, and the wheel is the whole university community. There are people on campus working on many different efforts related to this right now. We have faculty doing great things in wellness classes. We have peer health educators and residence hall staff, and my role is to provide leadership and direction to those people.
The administration is really putting its money where its mouth is. President Chapman has allocated funding for on-campus student events and programming, to do a media campaign and to fund the student community organizer. And beginning this spring, student organizations will have an opportunity to apply for grants up to $300 to help fund their own activities, such as dances or movies. Its a way to help students get involved in doing their own programming, said Oster-Aaland.
Were being very innovative in the way that were approaching this. Most schools have alcohol education programs, and thats where they stop. And were taking such a global communication perspective, really, and I think that sets us apart. Were taking more of a culture change approach to it.
I think its fairly innovative, said Oster-Aaland.
This isnt about prohibition. It isnt about taking away peoples fun. This is about drinking in ways that dont put people at risk. The biggest tragedy in the world would be to have a death at NDSU.
Short-term goals for the initiative are to get students talking about the issue, and to help them buy into it. Once all the research is in from a new survey and the organizational communication students, Oster-Aaland will work with students to prioritize strategies for change and implement the recommendation the commission put forth in its April 19, 2000, report. The long-term goal, as Wallman stated it is to reduce high risk consumption, underage drinking, save lives and promote academic success.
Alternatives to drinking
Students are encouraged by the leadership they see from university administrators, faculty and staff. Kyle Tuttle, volunteer coordinator of MU Live, a program at the Memorial Union that is helping to enhance the sense of community by offering students a Friday night alternative to house parties or the bar scene, sees it as a way for the university to demonstrate its commitment to the students. Friday nights from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., students can find entertainment such as free billiards, bowling, karoke, poetry slams, comedians, dances and free food. The university obviously has a concern for the students, which is great, said Tuttle.
NDSUs approach to MU Live is different than some other schools that have opened up their unions all night long, according to Wallman. What they did was they wanted to create a place for their students who were drunk, who had been out binging, a place to come back to and sober up. So thats not the direction we went with ours. Ours was more in the direction of OK, there are students that dont want the other scene, so we provide that. And its been pretty satisfying. Weve had some nice turnouts, said Wallman.
Tuttle uses his three years of experience with Campus Attractions, the student programming board, where he currently is a special events coordinator, to figure out what type of entertainment will be appealing to students. He estimates that a majority of the 100 to 150 students who have enjoyed MU Live on a given Friday night live on campus. When kids go off to college, they get that sort of sense of freedom that they can kind of do what they want, but dorm life is pretty boring. I think the university is just doing a great job trying to get these programs started. I guess the challenge, as with anything, is just trying to get people interested, and I think that once people are interested and they see the fun stuff thats going on, theyll start showing up even more, and then youll see a change in the culture, says Tuttle.
Kara Stack, the assistant director for campus programs, sees MU Live as a way to provide opportunities to people who arent interested in engaging in the risky behavior with a forum to meet others who feel the same way. I think there are significant pockets of students on the campus who dont drink, or prefer not to go to the house parties, and one of the nice things about MU Live is that it gives them an opportunity to come into a not terribly risky situation at all, and then they can start meeting some of those people who are like-minded.