The night Jackie Burns* won ten games of beer pong in a row is a night she will never forget. It is also a night that she will never be able to remember.
After her staggering performance on the table and many beers later, Jackie stumbled her way to bed and fell asleep. At least, that’s as far as she knows.
An hour or two after the games ended and the party cleared out, her roommate came home and found Jackie in an unbelievable state: asleep in the hallway, pants at her ankles, and surrounded by a small pond of urine.
Her resident’s assistant called public safety, and her roommate cleaned her up and changed her clothes. The officer that came to the scene insisted that Jackie be brought to the health center.
If a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .25 or more, Ithaca College's Health Center must send the patient to the hospital (.08 is legally intoxicated in the state of New York). Jackie wasn’t there yet, but she was close.
The nurse and her roommate kept watch on the emotional, uncooperative freshman for hours into the night. She did not want to be there. She did not want to talk to anyone. She wanted to go back to her room.
Eventually, when Jackie’s BAC decreased, the nurses allowed her roommate to take Jackie back to her dormitory.
Incidents like this happen all the time on college campuses. This scene is especially prevalent among underage freshmen and sophomores. More than 10 million underage persons consume alcohol on a regular basis. Forty-two percent of college students binge drink (having four to five drinks at one time in a two-week period).
About 1,700 college students between 18 and 24 years old die every year from alcohol-related injuries. Of course, the statistics could go on. The health risks, the drunk driving figures, or the number of crimes caused by alcohol consumption could all be listed and painted to show that underage drinking is an issue, but that’s not necessary.
The problem has nothing to do with ignorance. By now, people know drinking causes health conditions, assault, car accidents, rape, and many other big social and personal issues.
Most would agree it’s the American culture. Drinking is part of life. It’s part of college, whether you try to avoid it or immerse yourself in it.
Colleges do what they can to prevent underage drinking and other criminal offenses caused by alcohol. Tom Dunn, an investigator at the Ithaca College's Office of Public Safety, says their system is focused more on educating students about alcohol’s negative consequences.
Ithaca’s Public Safety focuses on keeping students safe above all else. Though they will break up parties, target the students who supply alcohol to minors, and judicially refer violators, medical assistance to students like Burns is their top priority.
“We worry about people that binge drink,” he says. “We want to encourage people to call us for medical assistance.”
Meaghan McTammany, a second-year resident’s assistant of an all-girls floor, puts her residents’ health first. When she finds a girl in the bathroom, intoxicated and leaning over the edge of a toilet bowl, she will stay with them and make sure they drink enough water. She keeps an eye on them until the danger has passed.
“People misunderstand the position of being an RA,” McTammany says. “We are here to make sure people are being safe.”
Vulnerable freshmen come to school and their lives change rapidly. Their parents are gone, they are surrounded by strangers, and the environment is new. Maybe their workload is more intense or their sports team demands a lot from them. Maybe they are feeling lonely or rebellious.
“Alcohol is an easy way to let it all go,” McTammany explains.
Laura Bradrick, a junior at Nazareth College, says that she fell into unfavorable drinking habits during her freshman year of college.
“[Drinking] made me social,” she says. “In high school I had friends, but I didn’t talk to new people. Coming to college, I didn’t know anyone. What’s a great way to cover up my shy awkwardness? Drink.”
Syracuse University junior Carl Purnell, a resident’s assistant for the second half of his freshman year and his entire sophomore year, saw a lot of problems arise with the freshmen in their first semester at college.
“People drink to fit in and to make friends,” Purnell says. “Everyone that comes in as a freshman worries about making friends. They go out and get drunk even if they haven’t done it before.”
As an RA, Purnell had to call an ambulance for heavily intoxicated freshmen during the first few weekends of school.
“There were three times as many incidents first semester than the second semester,” he says, “and there were 75 percent more ambulance calls in freshmen dorms than in upperclassmen dorms.”
Learning how to drink safely isn’t normally something that teenagers are taught.
“Freshmen don’t know their drinking limits yet," Purnell says.
As students age and mature, their knowledge and experience do as well. People that have been drinking for a longer period of time know their limits. Alcohol education can only go so far. Sometimes it takes that first handful of bad experiences to learn the dangers of drinking too much.
James Nichols*, now an Ithaca College junior, was sent to the health center his freshman year. After drinking enough hard liquor to black out, the campus police escorted him to the center where he spent the night.
“I'm pretty sure I've had that much since,” Nichols says. “But it doesn't affect me as much as it did then."
As tolerances rise and a better understanding of drinking grows, the dangerous situations where students are rushed to the health center are not as prevalent.
Nichols still drinks. School work and working out come first, but he still keeps it part of his life.
"It’s only underage in America,” Nichols says, “which is probably why freshman year at college is probably such a big deal. After a while, it’s just normalcy.”
Maybe it takes a few times to figure it out. A lot of college students use the first couple years to get acquainted with drinking. What they all need to think about is whether or not it’s worth making those mistakes. Those mistakes might be much worse than a night spent in the health center.
Not everyone drinks. In fact, 58 percent of students don’t believe alcohol is necessary to have a party.
“It’s a misconception that everybody does it,” Investigator Dunn says.
Ithaca College senior Kaylee DeGrace has never taken a sip of alcohol in her entire life. She doesn’t find it necessary to have a good time. And she has never felt pressure to drink.
“People always said, ‘Just wait ‘til you get to college’,” she says, “but it was never an issue.” People respect her decision and don’t give her a hard time.
“There are so many different things you can do to have a good time,” McTammany says.
Whether someone wants to drink or not is a personal choice. Yet underage drinking seems to be more common now than ever before.
“Freshmen coming in know more about drinking than they ever have before,” McTammany, also an orientation leader, said. “They’re growing up faster.”
As times are changing, people need to be aware and alert. Whether you are distressed, under pressure, or just in need of a good time, don’t lose perspective on the situation. Know your limits. Watch out for others. And, most importantly, understand your relationship, if there is one, with alcohol.
Jackie Burns was going through a rough time in her life when she made her first and only intoxicated trip to the health center. Drinking is no longer a scapegoat for her. It’s part of her life, but it’s not everything. This is a valuable lesson that many college students should learn about drinking.
“You can do it safely and be fine the next day,” Purnell says, “but if you do it stupidly, it can ruin your life.”
* Starred names have been changed in order to preserve confidentiality.