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I chose my favorite skirt and sweater for the first party of my college career. Days before, I had been a prisoner of my parents, restricted by curfews and inquisitions. Released from bondage, I joined my friends as we walked toward the large open quadrangle to welcome the Class of '69. I saw it immediately. A large wooden keg, complete with open spigot and a plethora of plastic cups, sat on the lawn behind Sherman Dining Hall. I have never really liked the taste of beer, and I generally prefer to chew my calories rather than swill them. But preference made no impression here. This was a critical statement of policy. A beer in hand was the de rigeur declaration of independence, and I was free at last.
I haven't touched a beer since 1965, but I'm not a candidate for canonization. It was simply that, as the sixties lifestyle ripened, mood enhancers tended to be ingested or inhaled, rather than imbibed. But decades after the black light faded, alcohol returned to the college campus. Today, "Wanna beer?" has replaced the awkward introductory "What's your sign?" Instead of taking a drink to look cool, students are drinking simply to get drunk. The better world we tried to create for them caused so much tension that they began to base their social lives on ways to forget. Recently, a freshman at the University of Michigan got drunk and fell to her death from a dormitory window. I'm sure her parents had warned her about date rape, self-advocacy, and the dangers of drinking and drugs. I'm sure they would have been shocked to learn that at some of the best colleges in our country, students drink shots in their dorm rooms to make sure that they are in the right frame of mind to attend a football game or party where they can continue to get drunk.
Recently, I drove to a small strip mall near my home for a cup of my favorite coffee -- any kind that somebody else prepares. At the end of the usual line-up of McDonald's, Blimpy's, and Dunkin' Donuts is a small, family-run package store. They carry an unpretentious range of wines and other spirits along with a variety of sweet mixers and potentially sweeter lottery tickets. A large poster glinted as the autumn sunlight hit their window. "Welcome Back, U of H Students," it read. "24 cans lite -- $9.99." They weren't talking about soda pop. I was so incensed at this brazen pandering to college drinkers that for once I didn't blanch at the egregious use of "lite." When I returned home, I found a letter from the Office of Parent Relations at my daughter's college. Enclosed was a brochure entitled, "Parents, you're not done yet. Have you talked with them about drinking in college?"
The college was right. They may be the location, but we are the locus of control. Before our children leave for school, we should discuss family values about alcohol, how to get help on campus, and how to refuse a drink. We need to disregard the grimaces and guffaws we encounter from our mortally embarrassed teenagers. We must investigate not only how classes and athletics progress, but also the components of the social scene. We should stay in touch with students who might be overwhelmed by the influx of independence, choice, and responsibility. We need to educate ourselves about the dangers of alcohol abuse and reconsider some of our own premises and practices. The 1997 College Alcohol Survey (Anderson and Gadaleto) estimates that alcohol is involved with 29% of dropouts, 38% of academic failures, 64% of violent behaviors, 66% of unsafe sexual practices, and 75% of acquaintance rapes. It's not enough for parents to unpack the mini-van and run. We need to remain actively involved in the lives of our college age children.
Let's work together to remind our children that it's cool to do well academically, it's cool to lead an active and fulfilling social life, and it's cool to contribute to extracurricular and community activities. It's not cool to pass out or drop out. Help your children choose a college whose campus culture does not glorify binge drinking and alcoholic antics. Inform your sons and daughters about alcohol induced abuse. Perhaps together, we can turn the campus into a place where "Wanna dance?" is a more welcome introduction than "Wanna Beer?" I called my daughter last night and grilled her about every drop of alcohol on campus from the dean's fine reserve to the local bathtub brew. "Oh, for God's sake...," she complained. "No," I replied. "For yours."
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