Rice drinking culture fosters respect, shared responsibility
College students drink alcohol. Not all of them, by any means, but many, including those who are underage. So instead of creating dormitories replete with teetotalers and closet alcoholics by merely punishing alcohol offenders, Rice embraces an unconventional approach: teaching these students how to drink responsibly in the first place. The result is a safer party environment and sounder university policy and attitude than one might see at other schools.One of the most important facets of Rice's drinking culture is its emphasis on peer responsibility. Rice University Police Department and the threat of punishment are seen as the last resort for alcohol episodes. On a university campus where many of the drinkers may not be of legal age, this environment promotes drinking in the safety of students' rooms rather than driving off campus to binge-drink.
In addition, students are able to actively seek training about safe alcohol consumption through the CHOICES program, available at wellness.rice.edu/choices. The program is a requirement for public party hosts, organizers and alcohol servers.
"While it is important to recognize the illegal nature of any underage alcohol use, it is equally important to provide students with accurate information and strategies for reducing their risk if they choose to drink alcohol," the Web site states. Instead of ignoring the blatantly obvious - that many college students, whether of age or not, will drink - honest education like this helps to create a healthier, safer party environment on campus by acknowledging the facts and planning accordingly.
More underage students, in my experience, stay on campus to drink rather than venturing to off-campus parties. Though this may initially seem like a bad choice, as it isn't conducive to exploration beyond the hedges, I encourage you to think about the net good that results from this. Students who stay on campus to drink with their friends are at much lower risk of being hurt, hurting themselves or hurting others. A student stuck off campus may feel trapped and pressured in a drunken spectacle. They may enlist an impaired friend to drive them home, walk through dangerous streets to get back to campus or submit to peer pressure. Students on campus, on the other hand, have more power to leave dangerous situations. At Rice, peers set and enforce the social norm of responsible drinking, so students have a larger support network than they would at an off-campus event. If problems do arise on campus, many students are well-versed in rudimentary care for intoxication, and can call the nearby Rice Emergency Medical Services if needed. As an added safety measure, colleges are also required to provide security volunteers at their parties, providing the first line of defense in protecting their peers. Because these volunteers effectively ward off many instances of reckless drinking and care for those who have exceeded their limits, fewer incidents require RUPD intervention.
Giving students the responsibility to protect their friends in a communal manner, instead of forcing obedience through fear of authority, has the added benefit of encouraging students to be more cautious with their alcohol consumption. Drinking at Rice is rarely an act of rebellion against authority, and thus it does not adopt the dangerous rhetoric and ideology that leads to self-destructive behavior. Drinking is instead viewed as a social activity, and you know what they say: Friends don't let friends hurt themselves.
In addition to the campus' social network, the Rice Health Advisors help to disseminate information about the responsible use of alcohol. As student representatives at the colleges, the advisers help set the standards for both healthy drinking and non-drinking cultures. Without exposure to these peer standards, the only controls on student alcohol-related behavior are set by the need for emergency responses. Law enforcement officers have their hands tied; they cannot advocate responsible behavior and can only punish irresponsible behavior. Health advisers, on the other hand, can inform students about safe behavior and model that behavior to encourage responsible drinking habits.
But safety aside, one need not fear becoming a social pariah for abstaining from alcohol, as the often vastly different approaches to partying at Rice coexist peacefully. When I came to college, I decided to abstain from alcohol and found that other students respected my choice. Alcohol is certainly a major component of most campus parties, but it is by no means a requirement for participation. I had no trouble making friends or having fun without alcohol, and I never felt pressured because of my choice. My experience is not shared by everyone, but the respect individuals receive for their decisions is much more prevalent at Rice than it is at other schools. Here, the drinking culture is largely shaped by the absence of Greek life, which helps encourage a communal sense of belonging and friendship and largely denies alcohol its all-too-common role in other universities as a peer-pressure tool. Though people have occasionally joked about my non-drinking behavior, I have never felt pressure to modify this behavior to fit in: Rather, it has helped define me as a person.
Here at Rice, students are smart about staying safe and protecting their peers, thus encouraging responsible drinking behavior. This student support, with law enforcement policies, provides the backbone of the university's safe, respectful drinking culture. And I hope Rice retains this culture, for the benefit of both maturing students and concerned law enforcement officers.
Katie Jenson is a Lovett College sophomore.