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If you can’t drink the water, will you be drinking beer?

FaithPoint | Thursday, February 28, 2008

Here’s a line from a website promoting spring break trips to Cancun, Mexico: “Don’t worry about the water because you will be drinking beer.” Another gloats, “Cancun has become Mexico’s sin city, and is especially sinful during spring break.”

Wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing for spring break, have a wonderful time, but please be very, very careful.

If you’re still reading – if you haven’t rolled your eyes and turned the page after that last sentence – do consider these facts from an American Medical Association (AMA) survey about women and spring break: More than half the women surveyed agree being promiscuous is a way to fit in. An overwhelming majority (83 percent) had friends who drank the majority of the nights while on spring break. More than half knew friends who were sexually active with multiple partners while on spring break. In another very troubling statistic, county officials in Daytona, Florida reported that in 2005 the number of rape cases doubled during the month of spring break relative to the rest of the year.

How do you view the spring break culture? Is it na’ve to believe that you, Notre Dame and St. Mary’s students, are different from the undergrads at other universities who flood the beaches of Mexico and the southern United States every March? Are we burying our heads in the sand if we think our close-knit, residence hall-living, Mass-attending, service-volunteering young adults have a firm enough foundation of faith, good judgment, maturity and morals? Will these enable you to withstand the constant barrage of our culture’s elevation of drinking and hooking up, brought to a new level of frenzied promotion over spring break?

Let’s say some of you have already mapped out the best bars and the hottest clubs in your chosen locale; you know some great-looking classmates who will be there and you hope they’ve got those same bars on their radar screens. You’ll be a little let down, actually, if you don’t engage in some “spring-break-level” alcohol consumption and other activities – it will mean that this year’s break just wasn’t all you hoped for. Maybe that overused phrase, “what happens on spring break stays on spring break” works for you: any excesses will simply be left on the beach (or in the bar, or in the hotel room). But I wonder, is that really who you want to be? Is that a part of yourself you would want the person you admire most to know about you? Or to quote “Allison,” a student at Duke University interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine in an article about alcohol and sex on that campus, “If my mother ever knew … I mean, she would smack me across the face. I was not brought up in that kind of environment.”

Maybe some of you have your tickets to a hot, beachy break spot, but plan to make it great on minimal or no alcohol. Enlist the help of your friends before you go. Look out for one another and remind each other what you want to remember about spring break on your flight back to South Bend. A major AMA project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called “A Matter of Degree” that addresses alcohol abuse on college and university campuses, found that environmental factors play one of the most influential roles in student drinking patterns, especially high-risk behavior. In other words, if you’re surrounded by people, advertising, news, attire, promotions and music that (in the words of the AMA) glorify “reckless…outrageous behavior,” it can be really hard not to get drawn in yourself. Remember and hold on to who you are and what values and tenets of your faith you hold dearest. Then relax, take a break, and have a wonderful time.

In addition to the more “traditional” spring break options, the rest of the country seems to be catching up with Notre Dame’s custom of offering service trips during spring break. To those of you who have chosen this option and will spend your break in Appalachia, New Orleans, Coachella, Toronto, Immokalee or Washington, D.C., I salute you: you have taken the most hallowed, often narcissistic week of vacation known to college students and offered it to those who have much greater needs than you do.

In the words of Dr. J. Edward Hill of the AMA, “What was a traditional time to relax and take a break from college studies has turned into a dangerous binge-fest.” Not for everyone, but for some, including here at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s.

It seems to me that, especially as spring break always falls during Lent, the Church – indeed any of us who try to engage our faith as Catholic Christians – ought to learn to speak more effectively about it. We in Campus Ministry ought to learn how to speak more successfully in opposition to the culture of alcohol-fueled casual sex as well, and so should residence life and the hall staffs. How have spring break and so many other weekends and behaviors turned into “dangerous binge-fests”? How have they become largely accepted as unavoidable, if slightly regrettable, even around here? How have we allowed the excesses of our popular culture to overwhelm what we teach, what we preach, what we try to hold up through good example, and what we celebrate in our sacramental worship?

Perhaps when you return from spring break – hopefully relaxed, happy and without any regrets – you will tell us how we can speak in ways you will hear; how we can help, especially if you need support of any kind; how we can together become the people God has created and yearns for us to be.

Kate Barrett is the Director of Resources and Special Projects for Campus

Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.