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ND drinking matches other colleges

Berrios, Marcela | Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a three-part series examining the use and abuse of alcohol at Notre Dame, the University’s attempts to solve alcohol-related problems and the future of the campus’ drinking culture.

While Notre Dame differs from thousands of colleges in academics and athletics, in terms of alcohol use and abuse, its students’ beer consumption matches the national trends – and that’s been a consistent pattern, University officials said.

The Office of Alcohol and Drug Education (OADE) has been telling Notre Dame students about the dangers of alcohol abuse for more than 10 years, but the results of its surveys every year match the results of previous years, and the trends observed at other universities.

“Our statistics and the national statistics are the same,” said Annie Eaton, an OADE assessment counselor. “All the other colleges in the country come up with the same results we get.”

Those statistics include a 20 percent of students that in an annual campus-wide survey say they absolutely refuse to drink, another 20 percent that may be labeled as alcohol-dependent and a 60 percent that falls in between the two extremes – numbers that Eaton said stay pretty much the same, year after year.

“Anybody in the middle 60 percent may abuse alcohol on occasion,” she said, “especially at Notre Dame. The binge drinking here seems to be very event-oriented. Just look at this weekend – with PigTostal and the tailgating – and you can confirm this.”

Rather than developing ongoing alcohol dependencies, she said, Notre Dame students engage in excessive consumption on isolated dates – including hall dances, spring break and birthdays.

But because these students are not heavyweight drinkers, she said, their one-time heavy ingestion of alcohol may result in hospitalizations, stomach pumps and, in the worst of cases, death by severe alcohol poisoning.

“We’ve been very fortunate because we haven’t had more deaths occur, but we’ve had some recent hospitalizations that came very close,” she said.

Eaton said in the last 30 days she had seen four different students who were hospitalized – and that figure did not include the hospitalization cases her fellow OADE counselors may have seen.

“On most occasions, the majority of our students drink at a moderate rate, and not to intoxication,” said Father Jim Lewis, rector of Carroll Hall. “I don’t believe that alcoholism – the actual dependency one has on alcohol – is any more of a problem here than national norms would indicate.”

Like Eaton, Lewis – an OADE assessment counselor – said a bigger concern at Notre Dame is the students’ sporadic “high risk consumption of alcohol.”

“Such a characterization would include practices of drinking games, competitive drinking, drinking to the point of intoxication, drinking too fast and not knowing the alcohol content of a given drink,” he said.

A resident assistant at a male hall who asked to remain anonymous agreed with Lewis, saying unconstrained and unaware consumption – though it may be infrequent for the student – is usually the fast track to a disciplinary hearing or the hospital.

“Some of my freshmen ran into a girl coming back from a soccer game and she was really drunk, so they were going to just walk her home,” the resident assistant said. “Well, by the time they got to the LaFortune she was so drunk they couldn’t even move her anymore so they went into a building and got a rolling desk chair. They put her on it, and rolled her to the lobby of the dorm to come get me.”

The resident assistant did not want to give his name in order to protect the confidentiality of the victim, but he said he “had to call NDSP immediately because we tried to talk to her and all she could do was vomit on herself, without even speaking.”

“College is about drinking”

While students do not look forward to any run-ins with the Office of Residence Life and Housing or the county hospital, their fear of these consequences does not detract from their desire to drink on Friday nights.

“Students drink because it’s fun,” said Katie Lancos, a 2006 graduate. “I can’t give you a better answer than ‘It’s just fun, and it’s something you end up having in common with a lot of people you ordinarily wouldn’t associate with,'” she said.

Lancos and her friends created the “I am the 21.7% of ND Students That Drink More Than 1x Per Week” group on Facebook.com, which had 542 members as of Tuesday.

The OADE’s 2006 survey, however, indicated that approximately 20 percent of the 1,900 Notre Dame students it polled drank more than three times a week – which many students would not condemn, including Lancos.

“People become a lot friendlier, and at Notre Dame, with such a competitive academic environment, or even with stressful classes, whether you’re competing or not with people, it might not be as easy to make good friends with people,” she said. “When you’re out at a party or a bar, people are all on the same level. No one is smarter than another, it doesn’t matter who got an A or not, who shows up – everyone is in a different environment, which can be a very relaxing feeling.”

Eaton said many students she sees consider the weekend outings and the weekend intoxication a break from the weekday workload.

“Students, because of the stress level and the workload, really get more into immediate gratification,” she said. “They’re all looking for that ‘buzz’ point.”

Not all students, however, think alcohol is vital to facilitate conversations at parties, including sophomore Megan Rybarczyk.

“I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, and I will admit, I have seen reserved individuals open up in a social situation involving alcohol, but I would argue that it is no longer deemed ‘socializing’ when the individuals involved are intoxicated and are not in control of all of their faculties,” she said. “It is the abuse of alcohol that is wrong and dangerous, not alcohol itself.”

In a March 23 letter to The Observer, Rybarczyk said, “Eight is the number of students (to the best of my knowledge) who paid their respects to the Emergency Room in a local hospital last semester in one night due to intoxication.”

As a volunteer at the emergency room, Rybarczyk said she was disappointed to see the University’s reputation falling among hospital staff members and the South Bend community as a result of the students’ “death-defying” blood-alcohol contents when they were rolled in on gurneys.

Her stance against alcohol abuse sparked a chain of responses from different students with different opinions, including sophomore Patrick McMaster.

“Zero is the number of times I regret vomiting during spring break,” he said in a March 28 Letter to the Editor. “As you may or may not know, the term ‘townie’ is not unique to Notre Dame. It has been used by millions of collegians for decades as a way to describe the disgruntled local citizens. They are only disgruntled because they see the fun we are having and are jealous that they cannot partake.”

The notion that college fun is tied to alcohol use is one that has been popularized by the media and one that is not consistent with Notre Dame’s mission, Associate Vice President for Residence Life Bill Kirk said.

“That concept that ‘college is all about getting drunk and rolling out of bed to go to class the next day’ is really sad and it’s something that to a great degree has been promoted by the popular culture,” Kirk said. “If you think of some of the movies out there, like ‘Animal House,’ that’s the message they’re sending out – but that’s not in tune with what Notre Dame stands for.”

Somewhere in between Rybarczyk and Kirk’s support of temperance, and Lancos and McMaster’s uninhibited endorsement of alcohol use to enhance social life, an approximate 60 percent of Notre Dame students will continue to follow a pattern alcohol counselors say wavers between moderation and abuse.

The second story in this series will examine the effects of policy changes on the drinking habits of Notre Dame students in recent years.