Before coming to college, Elizabeth rarely drank alcohol, save a few sips at a party. Her first night at Harvard, that changed.
Elizabeth remembers hunting for something to do with her roommates the first day of freshman year. They ended up following a large group of students into a dorm room where, she says, everyone was drinking.
“And that was my very first shot of vodka,” she recalls.
The situation described by Elizabeth, who, like the other students in this story, was granted anonymity by The Crimson so that her name would not be associated with underage drinking, is not unusual at Harvard. According to Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, survey data collected by the Freshman Dean’s Office through alcohol.edu, an online alcohol prevention course completed by incoming freshmen, has found that 70 percent of undergraduates do not identify as drinkers before arriving in Cambridge. By the time they graduate, that percentage flips, with 77 percent of Harvard students saying they choose to drink, according to the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors.
Students say the freedom of being away from home and expectations that everyone parties in college contribute to a freshman drinking culture that tends towards dangerous habits like binge drinking, generally defined as four drinks for women and five drinks for men in two hours or less.
When College administrators embarked on a review of the undergraduate alcohol policy in 2011, binge drinking was among the problems they sought to address. The new policy, released in March 2012 and approved by the faculty that November, banned “[a]ctivities that promote high-risk drinking, such as excessive and/or rapid consumption of alcohol, particularly of a competitive nature.”
Still, the College’s new alcohol policy has targeted upperclassman drinking in the Houses, and the status quo for freshmen remains: after the rule change, as before, all alcohol is banned from the Yard.
Limited by the fact that administrators cannot police an illegal activity like underage drinking, many say Harvard has yet to find a solution to the freshman drinking problem.
A FRESHMAN PROBLEM
Although the number of alcohol-related visits to University Health Services has decreased for all class years since 2011, over 50 percent of those visits are by freshmen, according to UHS spokesperson Lindsey Baker.
Both students and administrators said they have observed a significant drinking culture among first-year students, the majority of whom come to Harvard relatively inexperienced with alcohol. Freshman students said they take advantage of the newfound freedom of living without parental supervision to experiment.
Dingman said he thinks some students may “rush to catch up” on the drinking they avoided in high school when they come to campus freshman fall. Although the majority of undergraduates may not identify as drinkers when they enroll, survey data collected by UHS indicates that students overestimate the percentage of their peers who consume alcohol.
Being presented with the opportunity to drink, often for the first time, can push freshmen over the edge. Elizabeth, an athlete, described binge drinking as “very common” at bonding events for student groups like sports teams and alcohol use more broadly as a dominant part of the social scene at Harvard.
“Every party was all about drinking,” she said of her freshman year. “Most freshmen learned how to drink.”
Because freshmen who choose to drink often want to hide it from their proctors, said Dingman, they might resort to hard alcohol “that you can conceal” and consume “in a rapid fire way.”