College culture shock on tap Exchange student finds binge drinking is a way of life at U.S. schools

August 16, 1998|By Brenda Santamaria

Moving from Buenos Aires to Baltimore last summer, I expected many differences between college life in Argentina and in the United States.

But I wasn't prepared for the drinking scene.

The first Friday of school, the lobby of the Winwood Towers student residence at Loyola College had a parade of staggering students. Some students were lying on the floor and sprawled over the couches. Empty cans, spilled beer and vomit littered elevators and corridors.

I had always thought that "Animal House" was a Hollywood fantasy, but that night I was in the middle of it. And the movie ran all year long.

Going out to bars and partying seemed to be the favorite leisure activity of most students. So I thought, "If everybody does it, it can't be that bad." And there I was, ready for an "American college" night. My friends and I took one of the cabs that wait in front of Winwood Towers. We named a popular watering hole in Govans. The driver knew exactly where to go.

The bar was already crowded when we got there. Most of the people were Loyola students and most of them were underage. The bar checks identification, but another part of the college drinking culture is that everybody has fake IDs.

There seemed to be one thing to do: Drink. Drink a lot. There's not much conversation because the music's too loud. After a couple of hours, we left. I had to have fun in the American-college-student way, but it didn't work. I had a horrible night.

It isn't just drinking that takes place; it's binge drinking.

Sometimes the consequences are fatal. Scott Krueger, an 18-year-old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and 20-year-old Benjamin Wynne at Louisiana State University died from binge drinking last year. These incidents reinforced my concerns about binge drinking, not only for the incidents themselves but for the reaction of my fellow students. None of them thought that something like that could happen to them.

But those students who died in alcohol-related situations were no different from Loyola students or their parents when they went to college. They were just trying to have fun, and drinking was their way.

There is not a particular day for student drinking. Six-packs of beer and wine coolers are brought to the dorms at any time of the day. Underage students are not supposed to have the alcohol, but they easily hide cans or bottles in their school backpacks.

Once the students get the alcohol in their rooms, no one will bother them so long as they keep quiet and keep the door closed.

One night, a freshman student drank half a bottle of vodka alone in his room. He just sat there drinking. When he stood up and tried to walk in the hallway to reach the bathroom, he tripped and hit his head on the wall. Fortunately, the student didn't have to be taken to the hospital. But his roommate had to take care of him and clean the room that was sprinkled with vomit.

According to a Harvard University study conducted in 1994, Loyola students are not an exception in American colleges. Getting drunk is the main reason for drinking for more than 60 percent of U.S. college students.

The Core Institute, a federally funded program at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, Ill., revealed that more than 40 percent of the students in a sample of almost 90,000 had engaged in binge drinking at least once during the two weeks prior to the survey. Binge drinking for women is defined as four drinks in one sitting; five drinks for men.

More than half of the students who reported drinking admitted that they had experienced hangovers and almost 50 percent said they became nauseous or vomited as a consequence of the drinking.

"This is a problem for all colleges that have students living on campus," said Jan Williams, director of the Alcohol and Drug Education and Support Services at Loyola College.

However, Loyola students seem to drink more than the national average. The 1994 Harvard study found that 19.5 percent of the total sample binged three or more times in the two weeks before the survey. At Loyola, the Harvard study of 140 colleges and universities found that the number jumped to 41 percent.

Williams said Loyola tries to make students aware of the risks of irresponsible drinking. The center provides mandatory counseling sessions for students caught illegally drinking on campus. During next summer's freshman orientation, the president of the college, the Rev. Harold E. "Hap" Ridley Jr., S.J., will talk to the students about drinking.

The shock I felt about the drinking was not the result of coming from a country where nobody drinks. The opposite is true. But drinking in my country is a part of a celebration, not the celebration itself. Friends, music, dancing, conversation, food and alcohol are all together the components of a good night for us.

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