While alcohol use on campuses overall is on the decline, there's still a hangover: a larger percentage of the students who do drink, drink heavily.
A group of Penn students are enrolled in a General Honors seminar aimed at identifying alcohol-related problems at Penn and devising student-led approaches to reducing them.
The 12 students in the new seminar include drinkers and teetotalers, students acting out of altruism and out of enlightened self-interest.
John Buchanan (C'01) falls into that last category.
His fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, has had alcohol policy run-ins in the past, and he decided to take the course to help avoid future problems.
"Fraternities get a bad rap [on alcohol], so I thought I'd be better off participating in this course as a fraternity member," he said. "I'd rather be involved on the helping end now than on the explaining end later."
The course was the brainchild of Health Educator Kurt Conklin and the student members of the President's Special Committee on Alcohol Abuse, convened by President Judith Rodin in 1997. The committee suggested a student-led course as one part of Penn's overall strategy for dealing with "binge drinking" - downing five or more alcoholic drinks in a single session.
Meanwhile, Conklin was enrolled in a seminar on university-community relations that led him to conclude that dealing with alcohol abuse was one way Penn students could develop their own solutions to problems that affected the larger community.
Led by Anthropology Professor Frank Johnston, the seminar explores the history of alcohol use on campus, current research data on the subject, and how other campuses are combating alcohol abuse.
For Megan McDonald (C'99), the course was a natural extension of her own work. "I come from DART [the Drug and Alcohol Response Team], where we do workshops with fraternities and pledges where we try to discuss issues and deal with them responsibly," she said.
"This class offered another approach, a way to come up with creative solutions to different problems."
The instructors stress that it is the students themselves who will figure out both the problems and the solutions. "They're trying to define what 'the problem' is, or whether Penn even has a problem," Conklin said.
Recent figures from a multi-campus survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that there might be one. While the Office of Health Education cautions that the size of the survey's Penn sample is too small to be statistically reliable, the responses mirror national trends.
Over the past four years, more Penn students have sworn off the sauce, but those who still drink are more likely to binge often, and the percentage of those who say they drink to get drunk has also risen.
While Director of Health Education Susan Villari noted that it was too early in the course for the students to have defined the problem, she went on to say, "The students feel hopeful that they will come up with solutions that are created and driven by students, and that their projects will have a positive impact."
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Originally published on February 25, 1999