August has always had a tangible, special air for me. It is undeniably the beginning of the end — the end of summer, of feeling the sun on your skin, of family vacations, of internships and jobs, of being able to take a day and just breathe without classes or deadlines or meetings or reading or anything else. But as the first Canvas notifications begin to appear in my inbox and Facebook notifications alert me of welcome week event invitations, it’s impossible to avoid the impending term.
I love summer, but strangely to some, I love school too. I’ve always been exhilarated by the promise of new knowledge, the crispness of new school supplies and the palpable optimism; the idea that this is the semester we will all truly dedicate ourselves to school. For about a week, nearly everyone is the perfect student — approaching new ideas with zeal and enthusiasm, and actually doing class readings. Though I know the magic of the new school year will be short-lived, I’ve always felt it.
Welcome week is the week before classes begin, when our University’s infamous Greek life is in full swing, when many students spend days partying and drinking. The excitement of returning to campus and seeing friends is clear, and the most alluring social aspects of our school are magnified, while the demands of academic life only lure in the future.
But there is an undeniable dark side to the start of school, too. The culture of partying and drinking at the University is certainly not unique; most colleges face the reality that, despite the legal drinking age, many college students drink. As of 2016, 57.2 percent of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 drank within the past month, and 38 percent engaged in binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks on an occasion for women and five or more for men. For many students, “going out” entails drinking at least this much — often more.
Alcohol consumption, and particularly binge drinking, is undeniably unhealthy. Both the short and long-term consequences are well known to most. But while drinking isn’t healthy, it’s common. Approximately 56 percent of adults over 18 report they drank in the last month. So, alcohol consumption is not unique to our university, or colleges generally. And while binge drinking certainly carries a heavy, negative connotation, many individuals are capable of surpassing the number of drinks that constitute binge drinking without throwing up, blacking out or doing things they later regret. Many students engage in behaviors that young adults engage in — maybe drinking too much occasionally, but more or less conducting themselves responsibly while doing so.
However, this is definitely not the case for everyone. This poses a significant problem when we think about welcome week. Especially in a campus environment where a “work hard, play hard” culture permeates strongly, a week dedicated to, simply put, drinking and partying, heightens the risks we face while participating in these behaviors.
When entire days are structured solely around alcohol and parties, there is an inherent pressure to keep drinking. Especially for freshmen who likely have less experience with these kinds of environments, welcome week poses significant danger, and it shows. As of 2016, drinking by college students aged 18 to 24 contributes to an estimated 1,519 deaths annually. It’s not uncommon to hear about students who had to make hospital trips due to severe intoxication — so severe that friends fear they might die without medical attention.
Perhaps one of the most hot-button issues regarding universities, and Greek life in particular, is the number of sexual assaults that occur on campuses. In 2016, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that there are an annual 97,000 sexual assaults by students who had been drinking.
At the University of Michigan, 2018 brought a 61 percent increase in the number of reported sexual assaults — attributed not to an increase in assaults, but an increase in reporting. Pamela Heatlie, Senior Director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator, said, “This is likely due to continuing efforts around training and awareness of the Policy, as well as increased societal awareness of sexual misconduct, such as through the #MeToo movement.”
I wish to see the best in people and places, and how I feel about the University of Michigan is no different. I love this university, and I wish I could say that this issue feels far removed, that it hasn’t happened in my community, and that it’s getting better. And while it has never happened to me, everyone knows someone who has been impacted by sexual assault.
The number of reports at the University of Michigan rose from only 92 in 2017 to 148 in 2018, and most of them were not investigated. Of the tens of thousands of students at the University, this figure still falls alarmingly short when contrasted with the 23.1 percent of female and 5.4 percent of male undergraduates who experience rape or sexual assault via physical force, violence or incapacitation.
There are a hundred things we could blame for this. But to me, the most important thing we can do, as students, is to be aware and hold each other and the University accountable. This isn’t necessarily about cracking down Greek life or drinking or parties. College students will inevitably find ways to party and drink, regardless of the regulations put in place. We are not entirely responsible for our own campus culture, but we’re not powerless either. Creating a safer campus for everyone begins by facing today’s reality, and sexual assault does happen. All the time. U-M, like many universities, is often labeled as liberal. But on a micro-level, women are still objectified and devalued. Binge drinking is seen as the norm — to the point where sometimes, virtually no one is in an alert state of mind.
When I think about the upcoming welcome week, I am excited about the fun and reunion that will occur. But with all of these factors manifesting themselves in one all-encompassing week, I can’t help but think about what can happen. Young freshmen girls approached by older boys who can drink more, who are in a familiar environment and who have the unfortunate inherent advantage of being male, surrounded by others often too drunk to realize what may happen. I can’t help but mourn for student survivors of sexual assault who may not view welcome week as a fun, new beginning, but as a difficult reminder.
Instead of offering more hypotheticals of what could happen, or telling everyone to categorically abstain from alcohol consumption, I would rather urge everyone to, at the very least, be aware. Make sure your friends are safe and accounted for, but also make sure that all the people around you are safe — even those you may not know. To members of Greek life, hold each other accountable for the impression that the community creates. Even by doing things as simple as calling out your fellow frat brother’s female-objectifying language, or telling your friend to maybe sit out of the next shot while pregaming, we work to create a better Greek life system, a better campus and a better society generally.
This welcome week will, sadly, be my last. And while I enter with optimism for a new year, I also enter with trepidation, because I know what is at stake. And it is this apprehension and awareness that often prevents the trauma and even death we hear about from friends and in the news, feelings we may never truly understand until they impact us.
Olivia Turano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.