“I feel like it’s going to be a shit show no matter what, so why not be drunk for it?” Serena says. It’s a rhetorical question. Tonight, she explains, even people who don’t normally drink, do. Serena’s name, along with all names that appear only as first names in this article, has been changed due to the sensitive nature of the topics discussed. Serena is tall and slim. She’s wearing a strapless, floor-length dress and heels, her nails painted silver.
It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday night, and Serena and five friends from her freshman entryway are getting ready for the annual freshman formal. Sitting around a second-floor common room with all the lights on and a “HARVARD 2017” banner hanging over the mantle, they’re drinking mango-flavored vodka and Coke from nine-ounce red plastic cups. They estimate that they’ve each had about four shots since returning from the formal dinner in Annenberg, though they’re not sure.
There’s a knock on the door and a few more friends come in; soon two of the freshmen decide to “shotgun” beer in the bathroom, puncturing the cans with their dorm keys. Three others look on, their iPhones poised to capture Snapchats and videos of their friends in action. A paper party hat that reads “FUCKING WASTED” sits on a bookshelf near the door; later, Serena will tuck the hat into her coat and take it with her to the formal.
They head upstairs, where dozens of their peers, in suits and ties and dresses—long and short—are dancing in a circle, singing along to Don Omar and Lorenzo’s “Danza Kuduro” with the lights out. The wooden desks here are littered with Solo cups and Coke bottles, while empty bottles of spiced rum and Gordon’s Dry Gin lie in the blue Harvard-provided recycling bins on the floor. Twenty cut-out cardboard sides of 30-racks of beer decorate one wall; the boys in this room, I’m told, are known for hosting well-attended get-togethers that often involve alcohol.
A few minutes after 10 p.m., the group leaves Wigglesworth and joins the other members of the Class of 2017 streaming out of Harvard Yard. “To formal!” some shout as they walk down Mass. Ave. toward the T. They take selfies on the platform as they wait for the Red Line and, once they board the train, introduce themselves to fellow freshmen. Each time the freshmen meet someone new they politely shake hands, a gesture familiar to all Harvard students as standard etiquette for introductions. Some pass the time by singing loudly—Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,” Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA”—while others chat about courses they’re taking this semester.
“Guys, I have so much work this weekend!” one says; others agree. Between songs, they make plans to study at the Law School on Saturday.
By the time they arrive at the Seaport Hotel on Boston Harbor, where the formal is being held, it’s 11 p.m. The formal started at nine.
Freshmen and administrators alike agree that the formal is unusual; on most Friday nights, there is not such a high concentration of drinkers at Harvard, nor do those who do drink venture so far from campus while intoxicated. Still, a culture of sporadic but intense drinking pervades at the College, particularly among freshmen. While Harvard students come to college having had markedly less experience with alcohol than their peers at other colleges, University health surveys indicate that they quickly catch up.
Recognizing these trends, College policy aims, above all, to promote harm reduction. As with many other aspects of campus life, Harvard undergraduates’ desire to be so-called “normal” college students is in tension with a perception, reinforced by College messaging, that they are exceptional. As students navigate the realities of extracurricular and academic demands, exclusive social spaces, and high expectations for success across these realms, a culture of intense pregaming and the use of hard liquor is the norm among those who drink—but mostly just on weekend nights.
RUSH TO CATCH UP
Ryan M. Travia, who came to Harvard nine years ago as the founding director of Harvard’s Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services, says that Harvard students who drink (about 75 percent, according to University health surveys) diverge from national trends in their alcohol intake in three primary ways: frequency of consumption, inexperience, and consumption of hard liquor.
Travia has a friendly, open face and rectangular glasses. He wears a neatly knotted tie with a matching sweater. His office on Linden St., above the Bureau of Study Counsel, is tidy and brightly decorated with lime-green accents. He has a tendency to lean in and raise his voice when he makes an important point.
“Harvard students tend to drink alcohol less frequently than their peers at other institutions but the intensity often is just as high,” Travia says. Compared to many other American colleges and universities, Harvard has a larger proportion of students who arrive on campus inexperienced with drinking, though after a few weeks of school, the freshman class is generally at about the national average. And, Travia says, “Whereas beer traditionally has been the drug of choice for most students nationally, it’s clearly hard alcohol here. And that also tends to be directly correlated with most of the problematic drinking, medical transports, and negative consequences that we see.”
Travia believes that these tendencies may be due to Harvard students’ driven mentalities. “On the one hand these are very analytical, highly efficient students who are competing for time, which is always [at] a premium,” Travia says. “As such, many want the biggest bang for their buck and have, given the lower frequency, often a small window of opportunity to party. I’ve heard so many students say over the years, ‘I just want to be like a normal college student on a Friday or Saturday night,’ and whatever their interpretation of that is, often go straight to doing shots.”
Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 says that in his experience, too, no matter how well-educated Harvard freshmen are about the potential risks of alcohol consumption, they have an idea of what “normal” college students do, and as such choose to begin drinking heavily in a way he deems concerning. “There’s still this odd rush to catch up with the perceived norm,” Dingman says.
According to David R. Hinshillwood ’15, even students who have had experience with alcohol prior to coming to Harvard can find it difficult, at first, to drink responsibly on campus. Hinshillwood himself drank moderately in high school, both with his family and at cast parties for theater productions in which he participated.
His first night at Harvard, he drank an entire handle of vodka and woke up the next day in Harvard University Health Services. “When I think back and remember what my BAC was,” Hinshillwood says, “I don’t know how I’m alive.”
He believes those who choose to drink for the first time upon getting to college see alcohol as a rite of passage or even a reward for their hard work and postponement of experimentation in high school. “It takes [people here] a long time to understand moderation,” Hinshillwood says. He remembers meeting “extremes,” as he calls them, at the beginning of freshman year—students who would drink upwards of five shots in a short time frame as well as others who were barely comfortable being around alcohol.
It is with full knowledge of students’ varying levels of experience and judgment with regard to alcohol that the Harvard administration has, in recent years, taken measures to formalize policies in order to encourage students in dangerous situations to seek and receive help.
“At the end of the day, the real concern is students not either knowing how much they’re drinking or [not] knowing enough about the effects of alcohol that they end up in over their heads or in trouble,” says Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich. “We always want to avoid those scenarios. In the situations where they do arise we want students to be equipped to help out, so that’s where the amnesty policy comes in.”
When Travia first arrived at Harvard, a de facto amnesty policy existed, but the formal policy was not yet in place. The current amnesty policy received faculty approval in 2007. The policy states, “Any student may bring an intoxicated or drug-impaired friend to Harvard University Health Services or to a hospital, or seek assistance from College residential life staff or HUPD, and by doing this, neither they nor the friend will face disciplinary action from the College for having used or provided alcohol or drugs.”
Dr. Paul J. Barreira, director of UHS, states that the policy has, so far, fulfilled its intended goals. “This amnesty policy purposefully follows the University’s mission of fostering the advancement and education of its students in a safe environment, and we believe it has succeeded in encouraging students to get help for themselves and their friends,” Barreira wrote in an email.
But evaluating the extent to which the policy has succeeded is not a straightforward task. Following the implementation of the policy, Travia says, there was a substantial and consistent increase in alcohol-related admissions to UHS as well as transports to local hospitals, a trend that he says continued for approximately three years. While this increase was troubling to some observers, many were heartened by it and had no reason to believe that students were drinking more frequently or more dangerously than before.
“We felt like more and more students were actually taking the policy for what it was intended to do and getting help, and in fact now they had a mechanism for doing that without risking parental notification, or getting in trouble with the College or the Administrative Board,” Travia says. He cites research indicating that “culture change” around similar policy initiatives typically runs in three- to four-year cycles, and says that the rate of admission to UHS has since leveled off “exactly where you’d imagine it would be.”
Hinshillwood sees the practice of getting medical help for those who may be dangerously intoxicated as necessary and believes that Harvard students accept this responsibility as a norm. “Especially in freshman and sophomore years, [calling UHS] is very commonplace,” Hinshillwood says. “If you don’t know how to handle a drinking situation, if your friends are put in a drinking situation that is not good, UHS intervenes, which I think is a really good thing.”
By contrast, Roberta, now a junior, recalls that, as a freshman, her peers were skeptical of the amnesty policy and hesitant to seek help. “Freshman year,” she says, “I think the greatest fear was being taken to UHS, and the drunk people would always be like, ‘Don’t take me, I’m fine, I’m fine.’”
There exist nuances to the policy, and to medical treatment for alcohol use, of which some students are not aware until they encounter them firsthand.
In November, Cecil, a freshman, woke up alone and disoriented in Mt. Auburn Hospital after having blacked out; he was later brought back to UHS. In the days and weeks following his release, he went through mandatory consultation with his proctor and resident dean and participated in the two-session Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (“BASICS”) program. Above all, however, he cites the high cost of his hospitalization as an unforeseen and damaging consequence of the amnesty policy in action.
“I’ve been receiving bills for that visit [to Mt. Auburn Hospital] since it happened,” Cecil says. “No one has asked me whether I was able to pay those bills.”
When he first heard about Harvard’s amnesty policy in the fall, he was impressed. “I thought it was a pretty enlightened philosophy,” he says. His experience at Mt. Auburn, however, completely changed his view on the policy’s efficacy. “It’s not at all what I pictured,” Cecil says. “It’s problematic and needs work.”
Freshmen are taught about the amnesty policy before they arrive on campus with an online training course and, once they are in Cambridge, with in-person DAPA group sessions that take place during Opening Days. While Katie W. Steele, director for freshman programming, acknowledges that ongoing educational efforts may be necessary, they can be challenging to organize as students’ lives get busier. “The work [of alcohol education] is certainly not done [after Opening Days],” Steele says. “It just gets harder.”
In the fall of 2013, Harvard implemented a new educational program for freshmen in place of AlcoholEdu, the online program that had previously been required. This new program, which is mandatory, was created by AODS, the office that deals with alcohol use, in collaboration with the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors, and is called “Harvard Proof.”
The introduction to the program is telling of its overall tone and of the cultural messages it sends in addition to its practical educational purposes. Harvard Proof opens with a video of four students—three women and one man—who sit in a row wearing black sweatshirts with lime green DAPA lettering. They briefly explain the DAPA program and tell freshmen, “As Harvard undergrads just like you, we advocate for a fun, safe social community.” They introduce themselves by name, class year, and House affiliation and joke about this online training being a way for Harvard to give freshmen homework before they get to campus.
While Harvard students will almost certainly encounter alcohol as undergraduates, the DAPAs in the video say, “Contrary to popular stereotype, not everyone in college drinks. In fact, approximately only 25 percent of incoming Harvard freshmen consider themselves as drinkers.” If students do drink while at Harvard, the DAPAs hope they will make good choices. “After all, you go to Harvard. You’re smart. So party smart.”
Even as it is careful to dispel the myth that all college students are drinkers, the script of this introductory video engages in another kind of norm-setting as well, actively reinforcing the notion that all Harvard students are driven and high-achieving, ready to prioritize a difficult academic program.
Later in the program, during the section on “Optimal Buzz,” a woman holding a textbook tells viewers, “When I go out, I never exceed the optimal buzz, because I have work to do and being hung over wouldn’t help me.”
Near the end of the introductory video, one DAPA says, of Harvard Proof, “While this doesn’t count toward your GPA, you do need to complete the program before coming to school in the fall.”
“Don’t worry, though,” another DAPA says. “This might be the simplest assignment of your Harvard career.”
BEYOND THE TEST
By and large, Harvard students do well on such a “simple assignment.”
But Dingman says that while Harvard students are convincing in their apparent mastery of the educational programming, he remains concerned about its effectiveness in making campus drinking culture safer. “[Freshmen] do the course and then, as dutiful learners they show marked improvement in their understanding of what alcohol in your system can do and your own susceptibility to it,” Dingman says. “But the greater concern has been whether that new awareness impacts behavior. We haven’t yet achieved the results that we [would] like. There are too many Saturday nights when people end up in Stillman or emergency rooms because they’ve been somewhat reckless about their consumption.”
Though Hinshillwood, as a freshman in 2011, did not participate in Harvard Proof but instead completed AlcoholEdu, his sentiments about the effectiveness of alcohol education programs echo Dingman’s. “I think AlcoholEdu, at least at Harvard, is innately flawed because most of us are good test takers and we could have literally done nothing and just barely studied and sat down and gotten a passing grade [at the end of AlcoholEdu] without having learned anything about safe alcohol consumption,” Hinshillwood says.
Further, some challenge the claim that intellectual capacity and alcohol consumption are related at all. James G. Dyett ’06, a tutor in Eliot House, says that when he tells people outside of Harvard about his job, they often assume it is easy, since there is a conception that students at Harvard study often and party tamely. He reminds them that “college students are college students.” In Dyett’s view, intelligence and motivation do not always correlate with good decision-making when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
“Anecdotally, I don’t see the fact that you’re a Harvard student meaning it’s less likely that you’re going to want to party and engage in binge drinking,” Dyett says. As a tutor, he says he sees raucous partying and at least a few students who appear to be in “really bad shape” almost every weekend.
Ari R. Hoffman ’10, a tutor in Lowell House, agrees. “I don’t think it has anything to do with being smart,” he says.
From students’ perspectives, it can seem as though DAPAs paint a picture of students’ ability to control their drinking that is out of touch with reality.
“It was too much on the side of ‘don’t drink’ when obviously I was going to drink,” Cecil recalls of Harvard Proof and the follow-up DAPA session during opening days. He adds that while he knows DAPA cups with measurement markings to help people keep track of their consumption do exist, he has yet to see them used. “When I drink in my room with friends,” Cecil says, “we have red Solo cups so you have no idea what you’re drinking.”
Roberta says that she finds DAPA recommendations to be difficult to put into practice. Beer pong, she says, is an example of a commonly played drinking game that makes alternating or counting drinks almost impossible. “You drink however many cups as you have to drink,” she says. “And [if] you’re bored, you feel like it’s wearing off, you’re gonna drink again.”
Though students may be critical of the DAPA message, both students and administrators alike say that the peer education aspect of the DAPA model is perhaps its strongest asset. “It’s much more effective when it’s a peer-to-peer message,” Steele says.
Dyett agrees. “With the entire binge drinking issue, to me it’s all about students helping each other,” he says. “The tutors [and] the administrators can be there as support, but ultimately I’ve got a lot more confidence that DAPA can make a difference on this issue than that I can.”
Travia says that DAPA, which he started in 2006 (the group is now training its ninth consecutive class of peer advisors), is probably his proudest accomplishment at Harvard.
“I really felt strongly at the time and continue to feel very passionately about the fact that we need student leaders who are core to this effort,” Travia says. “Because if they’re not on board and they’re not engaged in it we’re not going to actually make any progress at all.”
That DAPAs are peers does not go unnoticed by students themselves. “I definitely feel like it’s better coming from peers,” Cecil says. “It’s like, ‘We should do this and you should do this too, not just because we’re adults and we do this better than you.’”
For their part, DAPAs are conscious of the importance of maintaining their position as equals concerned for their peers’ safety. “I am most proud of the non-judgmental perspective we have used to educate our peers about how to socialize in a fun and safe way whether they choose to drink or not,” Danielle N. Barbian ’15, president of DAPA, wrote in an email. “I think taking this perspective has really helped us garner respect from our peers.”
However, Cecil thinks that the group’s messaging risks coming across as condescending. “My problem with it is that the people in it kept saying over and over, ‘You don’t need alcohol to have fun, we’re fun people, we never have alcohol, we’re just naturally fun people,’” he says.
To some, the “you’re smart; party smart” maxim means, in effect, just the opposite of what DAPA intends it to.
“[Harvard students] go as intensely with drinking as they do with academics,” Cecil says. “Everyone here does everything to the max.”
Virtually all of the students, tutors, and administrators interviewed for this article say that Harvard students tend to be intense in all that they do and that they manage this intensity by developing elaborate systems of compartmentalization.
For this reason, drinking at Harvard tends to be a weekend-only activity. “Harvard’s pretty different from other schools that I have friends at in that there isn’t a substantial population of four-day, five-day drinkers,” says Josh, a junior.
Some believe that this brand of compartmentalization can lead to a desire to relieve tension with heavy drinking when the opportunity presents itself.
“During the week people don’t talk about drinking or partying,” Cecil says. “During the weekend it’s a completely different story. People here only give themselves these really transient outlets to let out all of that repression, only on Friday or Saturday nights.”
According to Cecil, this is not surprising. “Even if we go to Harvard, we’re still human, we still need those outlets,” he says. “Even if we are smart, we’re not necessarily going to ‘party smart’ because we still need to let go sometimes. The stress that builds up during the week, that intensity, it has to go somewhere.”
Indeed, not only freshmen but also upperclassmen greet the weekend, with its relative lack of classes, meetings, and scheduled activities and responsibilities, with open arms and a readiness to consume alcohol.
“When the weekend hits and you finally have this free time, at least I and my blockmates and the people I’ve interacted with kind of do go crazy because they’re just happy to have that one moment of freedom,” Hinshillwood says.
In the spring semester of their freshman years and the fall of their sophomore years, many Harvard students, male and female, become members of sororities, fraternities, or final clubs. Though not officially recognized by the University, these groups continue to attract hundreds of new members each year. In 2014, The Crimson reported, a record-breaking 272 women registered for sorority rush. Roberta believes that whether or not one is in a social organization has important implications for the nature of one’s social life and drinking patterns at Harvard.
Roberta and her roommates are all members of sororities or final clubs, and when they go out it is often to an event sponsored by one of these groups. To some extent, she says, social organizations promote a culture of intense partying as a way of impressing other members and potential members. “I think for men’s clubs they impress the potential new members with their space and their ability to throw parties, and I think for women’s clubs and organizations they impress their potential new members by their connections to men’s spaces,” she says.
Roberta explains that obtaining alcohol at male clubs requires effort and is not always a certainty, so many women opt to drink before they arrive at the clubs. “There’s the knowledge that in order to acquire alcohol at one of these clubs you have to talk to a guy or have a guy to pour you a drink,” she says.
Josh, who is a member of a fraternity, says that in his experience gender and pregaming are correlated. “Women pregame a lot more than men before they go out to clubs and frats,” he says. “Men don’t do that as much because they have their own space.”
But while Roberta went out “a lot” as a freshman, she says her priorities, and therefore her drinking patterns, have changed over time. “As a junior, my alcohol consumption is literally like once a month, [my roommates and I] get a bottle of wine and split it,” she says. “[Social drinking] is not something that we value more than, for example, sleep.”
Students who do not participate in Greek life or social clubs find alternative drinking spaces through their extracurricular involvement. “I work at a [Harvard] café where we have ‘drink-ups,’ and we have employee bonding that pretty much is fully alcohol-centric,” Hinshillwood says. Additionally, in his experience, “wine-throughs”—script read-throughs accompanied by wine—are common practice for the casts of campus theater productions.
Other alternatives come via the House system, where tutors and students help organize stein clubs, formals, and other special events to promote safer drinking patterns. “We’re very aware of the paucity of options [on campus],” Hoffman, who helps organize stein clubs for Lowell House, says. “The idea is to make House life as dynamic and attractive and cool and engaging as possible precisely because it’s open and it’s accessible.”
“THE MOST ENJOYABLE NIGHT OF THE YEAR”
While freshmen do not yet enjoy social opportunities provided through the House system, the freshman formal, like House events, is by definition inclusive and accessible in that it is designed to be attended by the entire freshman class.
According to Steele, it is not unusual for students to drink too much before freshman formal and end up unable to go to the event itself or get very sick while there, risking the shut-down of the formal for all their classmates.
Before the formal this year, Dingman emailed the freshman class reminding them in bold text of the College’s amnesty policy and imploring them, “Please be smart, and please look after each other.” He related the story of several freshmen who, prior to last year’s formal, “pre-gamed, misjudged their limits, and never got on the dance floor.” Ultimately, for these freshmen, Dingman wrote, “What looked like it might be the most enjoyable night of the year became a harrowing experience.”
And yet, he told the Class of 2017, this outcome could and should be avoided. “We expect the formal to be one of the highlights of the year for you.”
When Serena and her friends arrive at the Gatsby-themed “Great Gala” formal, replete with black and gold balloons, members of the First-Year Social Committee check their tickets as Steele and Dingman look on. Bag checks are underway, so that students cannot sneak alcohol onto the dance floor; most of their alcohol consumption, then, will have taken place at pregames. A uniformed police officer stands nearby.
By midnight, one freshman has been hospitalized for intoxication and several others are sick. The hotel will decide to shut down the event.
After almost two hours of pregaming, an hour of transportation, and an hour at the formal, Serena and her friends will head back to Harvard Yard an hour earlier than anticipated, taking Harvard-provided yellow school buses across the Charles River from the Seaport Hotel.
“Thank God for shuttles back,” one freshman says, “because [otherwise] I’d actually die.”