A night to remember: why some female students stay sober

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 - 8:11pm

The Michigan Daily recently administered a women’s health survey to 1,000 randomly selected respondents at the University of Michigan campus. There were 147 respondents, with 115 self-identifying as female.

Late nights freshman year going out with her new friends at the University of Michigan didn’t make now-LSA sophomore Vianney Flores want to drink — in fact, though she felt peer pressure, her experience helped her commit further to abstaining from alcohol consumption.

“In the beginning, when I first met my friends, it was like, ‘Why aren’t you drinking? Come on, drink,’ ” Flores said.

Fitting in at party, she said, requires a solo cup in your hand.

“There was so much pressure, but I would just say no … they wouldn’t shut up until I said I don’t like the taste,” Flores said.

In the Daily’s survey, 16.52 percent of the all-female respondents said they never drink alcohol and 21.74 percent said they rarely drink. Nearly 34 percent said they drink weekly and the remaining 27.83 percent of respondents reported drinking twice weekly or more.

For this 16 percent of women, the college environment can feel isolating in a social scene of alcohol consumption — making them unique in a sea of students drinking and partying.

In interviews, some of these women said their decisions about drinking are tied to religious beliefs or stems from safety concerns. They also said it is impacted by their friends, family and the resources available to them at the University.

The data largely fits with results from the University’s 2016 National College Health Assessment survey — which received a response from 2,515 undergraduates, graduate and professional students. The survey found that in the 30 days prior to taking the survey, 28 percent of students reported they had not drank, while 72 percent reported they had. Additionally, 40 percent of respondents reported having experienced high-risk drinking, defined as more than four drinks for females and more than five drinks for males in the last two weeks.

Flores said she stressed to her friends her choices stem simply from personal preference — she wasn’t judging them. She also added that her decision to not drink has been influenced by her parents’ desire for her safety, news stories about sexual assault, the negative health effects and a genuine aversion to the taste.

“I tried to tell them ‘I’m not judging you guys,’ ” Flores said. “It’s just my choice. I feel like they thought I was there thinking, ‘You guys are stupid.’ No, that wasn’t the case.”

Though both the University and the Daily’s surveys show a significant group of University students do not engage in high-risk drinking, research has shown that the majority of people underage do, in a departure from the campus trend. About 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The University Health Service website states, “Most students grow up in a culture which equates the consumption of alcohol with having fun, relaxing, making social situations complete and reducing tension.”

LSA junior Alexis Babbitt cited her religion as one of the reasons she doesn’t drink. Babbitt said in the way she understands her Christian beliefs, drinking before it is legal is not acceptable.

“I’ve never been drunk,” Babbitt said. “God tells me to follow the law and the law is to not drink under 21 and I am under 21 so I don’t drink.”

LSA freshman Gabrielle de Coster said she is not afraid to drink, even though she chooses not to in part for religious reasons, because she believes would know her limits. Instead, for her, not drinking translates to a more meaningful social experiences.

“I don’t feel that I am serving God to the best of my ability or spreading light in any way if my awareness of myself or surroundings is deluded by any substance,” de Coster said. “Faith and family history aside, I don’t want to be forgetting anything and I want the friends who I surround myself with to be friends who can make me laugh when I am not under the influence.”

Babbitt echoed her sentiments, saying while she understands college students’ desire to drink, she prefers smaller social environments to larger parties where everyone’s drinking.

“I know people say it adds an element of fun and lightness to a night out,” Babbitt said. “I have gone to parties but I don’t like being the only sober one at a party. I’d rather hang out with a smaller group of friends and watch a movie. I understand that people drink but it is not something that I find necessary.”

Flores said she is glad to have never had the disorienting experience of “blacking out” from alcohol consumption, noting that the kind of parties she attends don’t present the risks associated with heavy alcohol consumption.

“I like going to parties because it’s fun, you’re just hanging around with friends and things like that; I just don’t like being drunk,” Flores said. “After my friends understood that, I still liked to have fun even without drinking and I’m OK with them drinking … The environment is fun and they forget I’m not drunk sometimes. So I don’t feel uncomfortable.”

The main reason for their choices not to drink for some students also isn’t just about having fun. De Coster said her reasons not to drink also stem from a familial influence, but in her case, experiences with alcoholism have also impacted her choices in college.

“I have alcoholism that runs in my family and so I have seen the other side that isn’t just light dancing and a little giggling,” de Coster said. “I have seen people have to go to jail and the dark side of alcohol. College is definitely the stepping stone for that type of alcohol consumption.”

That “other side” of drinking is not absent from campus, even though many students don’t report heavily drinking regularly. Alcohol-related incidents have increased on campus in the past year; there were 561 incidents of students illegally consuming or possessing alcohol at the University last year, an increase from the 515 incidents the year prior, according to the Office of Student Conflict Resolution annual report.

The University, Central Student Government and UMix have also expanded the availability of resources encouraging students to find alternatives to parties in recent years.

UMix, a program Flores said she frequently attends, offers late night activities — crafts, live entertainment, recreational sports, dances and other social events — on about half of all Friday nights in the semester to cater to students who choose not to drink. CSG also held its third sober tailgate earlier this semester. LSA sophomore Grant Rivas, CSG chief programming officer, said he felt the reputation of college students drinking and partying does not hold for everyone at the University of Michigan.

“If you read the newspaper, a lot of times you hear about college students just partying all the time, and that’s actually kind of not what we’ve noticed is representative of the whole UMich population,” Rivas said.

Along with sober tailgating efforts, CSG has sponsored hydration stations in front of partnering Greek life houses as well as begun funding University Dining to open earlier on Saturdays to encourage students to eat before tailgating.

Ultimately, Rivas said it is a necessity for resources to be made available to the noticeable population of students who do not drink — and for Flores, University resources have helped support her choice.

“If I can have fun without alcohol, there’s no need for me to add alcohol to the mix,” Flores said.