Penn. State – #1 Party School in the Nation!

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On Tuesday afternoons at the center for counseling services on the campus of Penn. State, there is a substance abuse group. There are other groups offered at the center as well. Groups for: undergrads, women, depression management, mindfulness (what?), stress management and yes, a substance abuse group on Tuesday afternoons. Just how out of control is undergraduate drinking on American campuses and just what are we doing about it?

According to the Princeton review, Penn. State is the #1 party school in the nation based on their criteria and responses from an online survey.  Graham Spainer, president of the university says he doesn’t mind being known as a party school but wishes they weren’t number 1.  This is odd considering Penn State routinely lists alcohol as one of the biggest problems they have in Happy Valley.

A recent broadcast of “This American Life” from the Penn State Campus observed all kinds of drunken mayhem right outside the door of one of the producers of the show. In the span of 30 minutes the show producer witnessed drunken students stealing a stop sign as well as three girls who hike up their skirts and pee in her yard. We have always expected boys to pee in the yard but it’s good to know that this practice has now crossed gender lines. Later the show interviewed a girl celebrating her 21st birthday at a football tailgate party. Stating her goal was to get drunk. The celebrants included her parents and women from a neighboring tailgate who came over to watch this young girl get drunk and deliver her some kind of lemonade and vodka concoction.

According to student surveys, 75% of the Penn State undergrad population (more than 30,000 young men and women) drinks an average of 4.5 drinks on both Friday and Saturday nights more than enough for what the Harvard School of Public Health calls “binge drinking”. This does not include what they are doing on other nights. What is the problem with this? Is this wholesome behavior?  A rite of passage? Is it the entitlement of a generation raised on being told they were all “geniuses” and protected from human experience for fear they would have ‘low self esteem”?  I don’t think that is it because back in my day, we behaved in largely the same way. Inconsiderate, entitled to drink, party and do as we pleased because we were ‘in college”. Is this behavior so enmeshed into the American experience that we just accept it? Does it need to be “corrected”?

Strangely, for a guy whose life is so steeped in living free of intoxicants, I kind of think much of what goes on is late adolescent hijinks, that when sequestered to certain areas is harmless fun. Incidentally it seems that one of the biggest issues at Penn. State is the conflict that the undergrad revelry creates for the families that live on or near fraternity row. Umm, how about move dip shit? Maybe it is kids just being kids. I can’t imagine having 40,000 young people living in close proximity of each other without many things going on. In one sense, Penn State seems pretty honest about it. They don’t seem to be telling the kids not to drink in a hypocritical scolding. Many of the young people who live this way will be OK. It is true that kids will be kids and for most, they will age out of this kind of lifestyle.

What is disheartening about the substance abuse climate at Penn State, and college life in general, is the flagrant disregard for the recovery life and culture.  Considering the overwhelming amount of drinking on the campus, how would a kid in recovery make it? The simple answer is, they wouldn’t. How would a kid questioning what impact partying is having on their life flush that out at Penn State? I guess they could attend the group on Tuesdays but is that really adequate? The short answer is No, it is not in any way enough to support a young person who is having issues with alcohol. My issue is not that Penn State has a culture of drinking but that they don’t have a culture of recovery and marginalizes youth who want to live a recovery lifestyle. Nobody can foster a recovery lifestyle alone. We all need peer support, community, a sense of belonging, and a blend of community based and professional helping to sustain recovery. So I guess, kids who want this are not eligible to attend Penn State? That seems wrong, is it different from excluding a kid in a wheel chair? How about a kid with diabetes? What if they were raised in Pennsylvania, grew up watching Nittany Lion football, idolizing Joe Paterno is it fair to deliver the message that a huge land grant university can’t accommodate you? Fair or not, that is the message. On the off-chance that someone undergoing treatment at Hazelden youth and family or at Caron’s young adult program is reading this and thinking about how to integrate into an undergraduate life, scratch Penn. State off the list.

Recovery is never served by an evangelical membership drive. It makes no sense to try to police an entire culture on undergraduate campuses. Not to mention that I don’t think everyone who drinks has a problem. I loved every beer I drank out of a red cup and oh how I wish I still could but I don’t think everyone else should be sober, it’s really not my business. What does make sense is to start to think of recovery as something for young people and to make strides toward treating it as the acute illness that it is. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Kids might stay sober?

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