Do alcohol and orientation mix?

Canadian higher ed institutions face many challenges in channeling the enthusiasm that students bring to orientation week activities, especially if that enthusiasm is fuelled in part by alcohol. The way a school handles alcohol during a student’s first days on campus can have ramifications long after orientation itself. Yet every year, a number of institutions still find themselves dealing with the consequences of alcohol-related incidents that occur both on and off-campus.

How are schools responding?

Many Canadian institutions and governments have undertaken initiatives designed to help channel the energy of orientation in safer ways. British Columbia, to name one, has invested nearly half a million dollars into Changing Cultures of Substance Use, a project intended to facilitate a dialogue with students about the effects of excessive drinking. Nova Scotia offers another example of such an effort in its 2012 report, Reducing alcohol harms among university students: A summary of best practices, which includes “an increased number of alcohol-free university and student-led events” among the best ways to address excessive student drinking.

Individual schools may look to student leaders for ways to address alcohol-related issues and offer enhanced training on the risks of binge drinking for residence staff, student unions, and other peer groups. Western University, for example, runs a “dry” or alcohol-free event and requires orientation leaders to sign a contract that says they will abstain from alcohol, illegal drugs, and activities that may “negatively portray academics” at the institution. 

For Western Students’ Council Vice-President Jamie Cleary, student orientation leaders can offer essential peer mentoring to incoming students, as they “show first-year students that orientation week is just as, if not more enjoyable when you’re not drinking. They also help to facilitate bonding among first-years, and act as a comfort for them that often negates the need for alcohol to reduce nerves.” Institutions such as Wilfrid Laurier University and their associated student groups have also partnered on outreach activities to improve relationships with local community groups during and after orientation activities. Other institutions have imposed strict guidelines for campus-based service staff who are responsible for serving alcohol. 

“Unfortunately, like many issues, universities and colleges tend to be more reactive than proactive in dealing with students’ alcohol use,” says Tamara Leary, an associate professor at Royal Roads University and expert in Student Affairs. Leary suggests that institutional responses to alcohol-related incidents are typically “motivated by a serious and most likely negative event on their campus or on a campus close enough,” which institutional leaders often struggle to address after the fact. 

For these reasons, Leary insists that “transparency, consultation, and ongoing conversation about alcohol use on campus is a must for any institution,” and that the first step toward fulfilling these principles is to speak to the students themselves. 

What do the students think about wet/dry orientation activities?

So how do students feel about alcohol at orientation, and about institutions’ decisions to offer, ban, or ignore alcohol use during orientation week? To find out, we asked our StudentVu panel and received 1,279 responses from Canadian students and recent grads.

On the whole, 85% of respondents felt that orientation events should be at least partially dry. About half of all respondents believed that orientation events should be partially dry, while a third felt that events should be completely dry. Less than one-tenth felt that there should be no alcohol policy at all. While there was very little variance across age groups, respondents identifying as men (14%) were more than twice as likely as women (6%) to say there should be no alcohol policy. 

What do you think is the best alcohol policy for an orientation?

It is important to remember that in many Canadian provinces, a large number of incoming PSE students have not reached the legal drinking age, which might leave them feeling excluded from events that are supposed to welcome them into the institution’s community. With this in mind, most survey respondents felt that offering some events with alcohol and others as strictly dry was a good balance for an institution that wanted to be inclusive without seeming paternalistic. As one panelist explained: 

I think it’s important to exclude alcohol from some events to make it a more inclusive environment. Some students are not comfortable drinking and being in that type of environment. Also, some students might not be old enough to partake in events with alcohol.
— StudentVu Respondent

Jamie Cleary also notes the advantages of dry orientation programming, as he argues that “we understand that the students coming to Western are responsible for themselves and their own decisions, but Western is a completely new environment for them. We have found that it can be a very vulnerable transition that is often conducive to abuse of alcohol if not monitored.” He further argues that at Western, “we have found that having a dry orientation week reduces the pressure to drink, and has statistically shown a reduction in alcohol-related emergency situations.”

Students don’t want to be babysat

Among the one-tenth of StudentVu panelists who thought that alcohol should be permitted throughout all of orientation, many believed that a school that banned alcohol did not respect students as adults, and that this policy might encourage more students to consume alcohol behind closed doors:

“Dry doesn't work. Students will simply boycott the events and get a negative, and controlling impression of the University.” 

 “Students drink regardless of dry week. If it is open then students will be more open about it and it will help prevent any over drinking.” 

This last respondent’s comment suggests that having public events might in fact discourage alcohol abuse, and highlights the desirability of having students drink out in the open, where it is easier for them to receive assistance if they face alcohol-related emergencies. 

When speaking of an institution’s responsibility toward alcohol and orientation programming, Tamara Leary adds that “it is also important to remember that no institution is alone in dealing with alcohol related issues—students come to the institution having been exposed to alcohol already whether they use it or not.” To better address this issue, Leary suggests that institutions work directly with provincial and regional partners to identify best practices in dealing with underage drinking. 

Takeaway: A vast majority of Canadian students support having at least some events at orientation that are alcohol-free. Many incoming students will be under the legal drinking age and may feel excluded by events with alcohol. Yet it is important to ensure that alcohol policies convey the institution’s respect for students as adults who can make their own decisions.  

If you have some responsibility for student success and/or or involved with incoming student programming we invite you to give us a call, or click here, to learn more about an innovative incoming student study designed to provide you with only the most actionable intelligence.

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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