No, this wasn’t a fraternity mixer. This was Sober Skate.
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No, this wasn’t a fraternity mixer. This was Sober Skate.
And people weren’t falling onto a sticky wood floor, but a skating rink at the Yost Ice Arena. The event was so popular that within the first 30 minutes, the rental desk had already leased 300 of its 350 pairs of skates. The 45 large pizzas that organizers ordered were gone in an hour, as were the cases of Faygo and Diet Coke.
Each year around St. Patrick’s Day, Sober Skate — co-hosted by Michigan’s Collegiate Recovery Program and the Washtenaw Recovery Advocacy Project — offers local college students and community members a dry alternative to the holiday’s liquor-soaked festivities. Not all attendees identify as sober, but they’ve all chosen to abstain from alcohol on one of the highest-risk drinking nights of the year.
“Hundreds of people come out,” said Matthew Statman, manager of the recovery program, which supports students healing from substance-use issues. “And most of them are just young people who are not interested in drinking green beer.”
This year’s Sober Skate was the most popular yet. Statman said he is always surprised by how many students “come out of the woodwork” to attend the program’s substance-free events.
“They’re everywhere,” Statman said. “Most students are not using substances heavily or frequently, but they’re just in the libraries and in the dorms. And you wouldn’t see them otherwise.”
For as long as the modern campus has existed — as long as films like Animal House and She’s the Man have primed expectations for campus life — administrators have tried to curb dangerous drinking. While students’ participation in drinking has fallen in the past 40 years, high-risk binge drinking has remained a stubborn problem.
Yet recently, there’s been a shift in many students’ attitudes toward drinking. Instead of seeing alcohol as a fact of college life, more students are questioning its presence in their lives. Many are deciding they don’t want it to be in their lives — or at least not as much.
Drinking remains widespread on campuses, and other substances are only becoming more popular. Still, students who choose sobriety are facing less social shame and judgment than in years past.
That’s great news for administrators who have long worked toward this end. But now they must figure out how to help students lead fulfilling social lives without alcohol — a substance which, like it or not, is entangled with many colleges’ bottom lines.
In 1981, 82 percent of students reported drinking in the previous 30 days. In 2021, that figure was less than 60 percent. The data come from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future survey, which experts say is a reliable measure of students’ alcohol consumption. Students’ participation in drinking trended downward until about 1997 and has continued to decline slightly since then.
About 44 percent of students in 1981 self-reported binge drinking in the previous two weeks, according to the survey. In 2020, when many college students were home because of the pandemic, the binge-drinking rate fell to 24 percent, but it bounced back to 30 percent in 2021. Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting.
Duncan B. Clark, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on adolescent substance use, said there was a significant drop in alcohol use in the 1980s after Congress made 21 the minimum drinking age. Since then, “a lot of the rates have been fairly stable,” he said.
The data, though, don’t tell the full story about campus culture. Alcohol has vexed college administrators, even as drinking rates have declined. In the 1980s and 1990s, The Chronicle reported on spates of alcohol-related student deaths, efforts to reform fraternity drinking culture, and the difficulties of establishing sound alcohol policies. We’re still writing about those topics.
“Seven years after most states increased the legal drinking age to 21, college officials are still wrestling with how to respond,” The Chronicle declared in 1990. “Some are trying to stamp out underage drinking on their campuses, while others say a more realistic approach is to acknowledge that students use alcohol and to encourage them not to abuse it.”
Over the past 40 years, colleges have poured millions of dollars into alcohol-education programs, health-promotion centers, and collegiate-recovery communities. They’ve invested time and money into hiring staff to oversee these efforts.
These interventions have worked to an extent. Recovery programs continue to pop up all over the country to support students healing from substance-use issues. At the same time, alcohol-education programs are a mixed bag, with the benefits wearing off over time.
And while binge-drinking behavior has slowed, it remains a major concern of college leaders, who fear that students will die from alcohol poisoning. Each death brings renewed calls for institutions to crack down on alcohol culture and hold the groups that cultivate it accountable.
While young people have many personal reasons for making the choice, confluent forces — a more inclusive society, a stronger safety net for those struggling with addiction, and increased skepticism toward alcohol — have made it easier than ever to be a college student who doesn’t drink.
That cuts against the conventional campus wisdom that students who abstain are just alcoholics. The substance-free community is made up of people with various reasons for not using alcohol and drugs, said Lindsay Garcia, who oversees Brown University’s Donovan Program for Recovery and Substance-Free Initiatives.
“Some people just want to study really hard,” Garcia said. “Some people have family history of addiction; some people are in recovery. People have religious reasons or personal reasons or medical reasons.”
Society has, in recent years, become more willing to embrace and organize around the sober lifestyle, Clark, of the University of Pittsburgh, said. He pointed to Dry January, a popular health campaign that encourages people to take a break from drinking in the new year.
More bars are offering “mocktails,” or nonalcoholic cocktails. Headlines declare that alcohol just isn’t cool anymore. The “sober curious” movement has spawned a cottage industry of podcasts, books, and social groups designed to uplift people who are questioning their relationship with alcohol.
People are also more attuned to the research on the negative health effects of alcohol, said Lynsey Romo, an associate professor of communications at North Carolina State University who studies how people talk about alcoholism and sobriety.
“All of a sudden, everything is ‘sober curious,’” Romo said. “Every single news outlet is writing about this.”
On campus, demographic shifts may be amplifying the sober wave.
Students today are more diverse, and research shows that students of color and first-generation students are less likely to drink excessively. Today’s college students are also more open-minded toward people who are different from them, and that’s reflected in the greater acceptance of those who choose not to drink.
Sonia Redwine, director of the Recovery and Intervention Support and Education Center at the University of North Texas, said lockdown allowed many students to think seriously about their behaviors.
“A lot of students coming in are really seeking to align with their values, seeking activities that allow them to grow,” she said. “This incoming student population is reflecting a lot more about that, and there’s a lot more awareness of the adverse effects of alcohol and consequences.”
In that vein, collegiate-recovery programs have sprouted across the United States. They offer sober housing, social events, and connections to community services. According to its website, the Association of Recovery in Higher Education has 152 member institutions worldwide.
At Michigan, most of the recovery program’s events are only for students in the close-knit group. But in addition to St. Patrick’s Day skating, the program hosts an annual sober tailgate, which is open to the public. For students who don’t enjoy drinking or partying, events like these prove that they’re not alone.
“I don’t really like parties,” said Wencke Groeneveld, a Michigan student who attended Sober Skate. “I prefer physical activity, and I am a big fan of ice-skating. Even when I go to parties, I don’t drink. But it’s a little bit weird because other people are drinking.”
And for students who do enjoy going out, the prospect of free pizza and ice-skating may be enough to lure them away from the party scene.
“Without alternatives like this, people will just get drunk,” said Maya Castleberry, a Michigan graduate who attended the event. “There’s a huge turnout. People see that ice-skating is more fun than drinking.”
Recovery programs only serve a subset of students who abstain, and those students’ needs are different. But just the presence of a collegiate-recovery program on campus helps normalize the experience of being a college student who doesn’t drink, Statman said.
“Campuses that really are invested in collegiate recovery and raise up students in recovery do something to help normalize sober students, whether they’re in recovery or not, or need to be in recovery or not,” Statman said.
Madhu Subramanian, a senior at Brown and president of SoBear, said that while club events are designed for people who are substance-free, it is not a requirement.
“You just have to remain sober right before, and during,” Subramanian said. “I think we provide a really good avenue for people who, for whatever reason, might just want a space that doesn’t have substances for a night.”
SoBear’s spring 2023 schedule includes bookmark weaving and tote-bag decorating. Events typically draw between 20 and 30 students, Subramanian said. Once, a mocktail-and-movie night attracted 180 people. “Last week we created potted felt succulents,” he said. “Last semester we went to Dave & Buster’s.”
Sober students at Brown gather in several different ways, including through substance-free housing.
Requests to live in first-year substance-free housing have tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, Garcia said. When she assumed the position, in January 2021, participation in the collegiate-recovery program had dwindled to three or four active members. Now, it’s between 30 and 40.
Subramanian lives in Donovan House, a 17-bed residence for sober students.
“Everyone in the house is there for different reasons, but all of us completely respect each other’s reasons for not wanting to interact with substances,” he said.
Naturally, many teetotaling college students find community, and a following, on social media. On TikTok, student creators post videos sharing reasons why they choose not to drink, tips for staying sober, and mocktail recipes.
“I wanted to create a space and awareness that binge-drinking culture is not required to have a good college experience,” said Julie Lawton, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut who runs a health-and-fitness TikTok account.
Lawton said social media helps people who choose not to drink feel less lonely.
“If people didn’t have social media, they’d look around in college and think everyone’s drinking,” she said. “The only reason people know that I don’t drink is because of my social media.”
When Lawton started college, she noticed how normalized drinking was at Connecticut. There wasn’t much to do in Storrs, she said, besides drink and party.
So she’d drink, but it didn’t make her feel good. Lawton said she’d get really bad “hangxiety,” which she defined as the anxiety one feels the morning after drinking, when you can’t remember who you talked to or what you said.
At the beginning of her sophomore year, Lawton decided to try going out sober. She didn’t tell anyone and made sure to have a nonalcoholic drink in her hand. “I felt like I had a lot more confidence sober,” she said.
While sober students have found support and community, they still struggle to navigate their peers’ expectations around drinking.
“I am comfortable talking about it,” said Claire Fogarty, a junior at the University of Southern California, of her sobriety. “People don’t know my relationship with it. But it isn’t something you’re supposed to ask people about.”
Colleges are still playing catch-up on creating better sober spaces that work for students. Campus-sponsored events often end before the weekend-night revelry even begins.
“The administration can only do so much when it comes to student culture, because that’s something that takes years to change,” said Kacey Lee, a sophomore at Cornell University. “But I do wish they would implement night events or concerts or open-mic nights, low-key things at night so that there’s things for students to do without alcohol.”
Not having alternatives is especially difficult for students in recovery, who often have to choose between going out sober and staying in.
“College is not a recovery-enhancing environment,” said Katie Carroll, a Michigan senior and member of its Collegiate Recovery Program. “I’d love to say it’s as common to find sober activities as it is ones where drinking is involved, but it isn’t.”
At Michigan, part of the success of the skating event was that it was so late, running from 10 p.m. to midnight. When asked what their plans were for the rest of the night, most attendees said they would go to bed.
“I’ve come to college to study and get a degree, so it’s better that there’s an event that doesn’t involve alcohol,” said Pranav Varshney, a Michigan freshman. Ice-skating is “not going to make me feel bad the next day, and I can go back to studying.”
Hosting better substance-free events is one thing; changing attitudes and behavior around drinking is another.
Alcohol consumption is so entrenched in the public imagination of college life that its absence is newsworthy; we question why students do not drink, not why they do. And the functioning of the college relies, financially and otherwise, on the assumption that students will drink.
Institutions attract students by promising both academic and social nourishment, but the responsibility of engaging students often falls to Greek-life organizations and other student clubs where booze reigns supreme. Colleges reap the benefits: In 2021, a Gallup poll commissioned by the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference found that fraternity and sorority members were much more likely to report donating to their alma mater than unaffiliated alumni — 54 percent versus 10 percent. Former fraternity and sorority members were also more likely than unaffiliated alumni to recommend their institution to others.
These groups remain embroiled in alcohol-related hazing scandals. About 1,500 college students between 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related causes each year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Plus, alcohol is more widely available on campuses than ever. More colleges are allowing beer and wine sales at football games. Several have tightened their embrace of beer companies through sponsorships and branded beer.
“Although alcohol use has decreased over time, it still remains — by far — the most prevalent substance used on college campuses,” said Megan Patrick, a research professor at the University of Michigan and principal investigator on the Monitoring the Future study, in an email to The Chronicle.
And a recent TikTok trend that recommends mixing water, liquor, flavoring, and electrolytes in a gallon jug is a new stressor for administrators. Advocates of the borg (“blackout rage gallon”) argue that the concoction reduces harm, because drinkers control what goes in their jug. That’s not so reassuring to colleges.
In March, during the annual “Blarney Blowout” binge-drinking event, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Town of Amherst released a joint statement alerting the community to the use of borgs. The Amherst Fire Department received 28 requests for ambulance transport during the event. Officials planned to “assess this weekend’s developments and consider steps to improve alcohol education and intervention.”
Marijuana use, meanwhile, has been rising steadily since the mid-aughts. In 2021, 24 percent of college students said they had used marijuana in the last month, according to Monitoring the Future data.
Statman, at the University of Michigan, said he has noticed an uptick in cannabis use as Michigan has legalized recreational use and dispensaries have opened within walking distance of campus.
“That’s affected the culture for sure around substance use,” he said. He said he didn’t have the numbers, but “I think it’s safe to say that more people are using cannabis than they were before you could go buy it at the store.”
“All the positive trends that we’re seeing point to a safer campus in terms of alcohol use,” said Julia Martinez, an expert on college drinking and an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University.
Clark, the Pitt psychiatrist, said he welcomes the greater acceptance of sobriety on campus and the shift toward a more expansive definition of college fun.
“What is fairly ingrained in our culture is that being a college student is associated with alcohol and other drugs,” Clark said. “That’s proven to be a problematic expectation.”
Instead of embracing these expectations, college students today are charting their own paths.
“People talk about this current generation like they don’t take on any risks,” Martinez said. “I would really want to emphasize that younger people are putting their foot down and are saying, ‘We don’t have to do the status quo.’”
In the lobby as the Michigan event waned, Bella Nuce, who graduated in 2021, reflected on the four years she has attended Sober Skate. When the 25-year-old first started going, it was much smaller, mostly fellow students in recovery. Now, it’s everyone.
She credited “a younger generation that’s more mature than me” for increasing Sober Skate’s popularity.
Meanwhile on the ice, Justine Sedky, who earned her master’s from Michigan in 2020, danced in anticipation of midnight. At that time, she would celebrate her fifth sober anniversary. Her peers whooped as the minutes counted down.
Of course, there would be no clinking of glasses when the clock struck midnight. Statman, the recovery-program manager, made just one request, tongue in cheek, as Sedky’s big moment approached: “Don’t drink.”