Alcohol-free student halls: do they provide safety or seclusion?

Are you going out tonight? A question which echoes around university campuses every evening as students conclude the academic side of their lives for the day and begin to consider another equally important aspect: their social lives. There’s no doubt that going out and drinking is a custom deeply embedded in university culture – in 1945, an article was published in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, which described drinking as an “accepted symbol of good fellowship”. But with more than one in five current university students describing themselves as teetotal, changing attitudes towards alcohol at university are bringing with them new alternatives for students who prefer to stay sober. These include the introduction of alcohol-free student halls, in which drinking is completely prohibited.

The first university in Scotland to offer this type of accommodation was St Andrews. A spokesperson described the university’s aim to create a “safe, healthy and inclusive campus experience for all of our students.” With 400 applications for only 132 available alcohol-free rooms, the idea has clearly proved popular. But does this kind of accommodation actually help to include sober students in university life, or does it only differentiate them further from their drinking peers?

For non-drinking students about to begin their university careers, drinking culture is clearly a concern – so much so that the online forum The Student Room has countless threads created by anxious freshers, asking questions like “What’s it like being teetotal at uni?”, or even “How do I survive university without drinking?”. Concerns range from an inability to make friends as the only sober one in a crowd of drinkers to unwanted questions regarding their reasons for being teetotal. For these students, sober halls may represent a safe haven. However, as many responses to these threads indicate, these alcohol-related fears often prove to be unwarranted; not only are most people generally accepting of the choices of others, universities are already providing alternatives for sober students to socialise and make friends.

During the University of Edinburgh welcome week, societies offered daytime events, such as coffee crawls along with night-time activities, including themed game nights. Throughout the year, sports teams and societies give students the chance to meet friends without the aid of alcohol. With all these opportunities on offer to sober students, are alcohol-free halls a necessary option? In fact, could they even be detrimental to sober students looking for friends?

With university widely acknowledged as a place to expand horizons, meet a diverse range of people and prepare students for the real world, allowing students to live in an artificial environment where nobody drinks alcohol arguably prevents them from exposure to real life, and from learning to deal with these types of situations when they inevitably encounter them in the future. Furthermore, it could be said that by separating students into two categories of ‘drinkers’ and ‘non-drinkers’ creates an ‘us and them’ mentality, fostering mistrust and division between students. Instead of dividing these two kinds of people, perhaps it may be beneficial for both to bring them together, allowing them to learn to understand each other’s’ lifestyle.

Yet simultaneously, concerns about drunk flatmates crashing in at 3 am, having loud parties the night before a big exam or leaving a mess in the kitchen after making post-club snacks are entirely valid problems every student has experienced at least once. Nevertheless, these issues, although annoying at the time, are perhaps perfect opportunities to practice essential life skills not taught in lectures or tutorials -mediation, understanding and compromise. Swaddling students in the safety of sober halls rob them of these experiences, and thus of an important part of the university learning experience.

Ultimately, although universities should be introducing measures to ensure teetotal students are included in university life, it’s important that these measures bring drinking and non-drinking students closer together rather creating further division.

 

Image Credit: Jirka Matousek via Flickr 

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