Bottoms up is thumbs down, these days

It's pledge season, a time of year when new fraternity and sorority members may find themselves facing unfamiliar situations with alcohol and sex. But they've got help, thanks to an army of close to 200 student volunteers.

The volunteers are peer educators, and they work for an alphabet soup of organizations that target problem behavior - behavior like unwanted sexual advances or binge eating or excessive drinking.

There's DART, or the Drug and Alcohol Resource Team; STAAR, or Students Together Against Acquaintance Rape; FLASH, or Facilitating Learning About Sexual Health; GUIDE, or Guidance For Understanding Image, Dieting, & Eating; SHAB, or the Student Health Advisory Board; and RAP-Line, or the Reach-A-Peer Helpline.

But it's the work of DART that has taken on an unprecedented urgency after a series of alcohol-related deaths on campuses across the country.

The repercussions of alcohol abuse extend to friends, dorm mates, sorority sisters and fraternity brothers. Alcohol abuse has broad consequences, said Health Educator Kate Ward-Gaus, M.S.Ed. She rattled off a quick list - miscommunication, regrettable sexual experiences, unsafe sex, missed classes, poor academic performance, interruption of the studies of others, the number of students needing medical attention, interpersonal violence (including fights and sexual violence), the need to deal with other people's vomit and messes, and caretaking required of others to help the drinker get home safely or get to the hospital.

"Do we have a severe alcohol problem at Penn? I don't know," said Ward-Gaus. But she hopes to know, soon.

The Health Education office will launch on Saturday a week-long Internet survey on actual alcohol consumption and student perceptions of alcohol consumption on campus. Students will get an e-mail invitation to answer the survey, and 10 prizes, with values ranging from about $100 to about $25, will be distributed to randomly selected participants.

Ward-Gaus said surveys on other campuses have showed that students' assumptions about drinking are inflated. For instance, most students, including teetotalers, believe that no more than 5 percent of the student population abstains from drinking. The figure is more like 10 percent. Findings like that have a good chance of further discouraging drinking, she said, because results showing lower-than-expected alcohol use worked as advertisements on other campuses, further lowering drinking there.

"We're trying to change what's considered normal or acceptable," said Ward-Gaus, who along with Kurt Conklin, M.S., and Director of Health Education Susan Villari, M.P.H., works with the student volunteers.

The volunteer efforts include organizing events, creating advertising (if you've seen the Barbie and Ken ads around campus, they're from DART), and running workshops for campus groups that request them - college houses, atletics, ROTC, nursing classes, even parents.

Just last week, DART organized an event in which two students - Sarah Gleit (C'99) and Jed Ryan (W'99) - spoke about their personal experiences with alcohol's dangers. The event was a forum for students who are making lower-risk drinking decisions to have their voices heard.

One Greek pledge who attended a mandatory workshop led by DART and STAAR was affected by what he heard. Keval Patel (W'01) said he learned a lot at the workshop two weeks ago at Tau Epsilon Phi, which, he said, was to "heighten awareness of the effect alcohol and drugs can have on sexual relations at a party." The workshop "definitely would affect my behavior, and I would think twice before I make a move on a girl," he said.

When Ward-Gaus arrived on campus in 1995, the most that DART volunteers hoped for was to train students to recognize and respond to alcohol poisoning.

Now they hope they can change the way people use alcohol - to drink in lower-risk ways or not at all.

See related story, "Class Acts."

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Originally published on February 25, 1999