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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

College risks often catch freshmen unprepared

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

As Hawai'i's newest crop of high-school graduates starts college, worries about homesickness could pale in comparison to weightier concerns, including drinking and casual sex on university campuses, violence and injury related to binge drinking, and date and dorm rape.

University of Hawai'i-Manoa freshmen sometimes find their new freedom more than they can handle.

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In surveys of more than 100 Hawai'i college students attending 73 schools in Hawai'i and on the Mainland, Hawai'i author and researcher Richard Fassler has found that students are often unprepared or unaware of the most dangerous aspects of college life — until they confront them.

"They'll be introduced to many parties where the alcohol is cheap or free and many of them have not experienced that situation before," said Fassler, who is researching a college guide book for Hawai'i students.

"One girl said that there are so many 'pills' going around that you never allow anyone to look after your drink unless it's your best friend.

"In another survey the kid said the reason the fraternities give out free booze is to get the girls drunk and take them to bed.

"I asked the students what's the No. 1 topic on their campus and often they say date rape, and this is very often a consequence of drinking."

Fassler said one student told him sex is so casual on her campus that some students have to check a "freshman face book" to figure out who they slept with the night before.

Statistics indicate such incidents involve a small percentage of college students overall. Still, the raw numbers show that tens of thousands of students are affected by these aspects of college life. Fassler said the survey information offers an opportunity for parents to discuss risks with their students and consider ways to prevent them.

How to avoid dangers

Doug Hunt, a University of Missouri-Columbia professor who has just published a book on why college students get in trouble, says there are guideposts for a person's readiness for college. Basing some of his observations on the work of Harvard's Robert Kegan, whose "The Evolving Self" delineates stages of emotional growth, Hunt says parents can be helped by understanding their offspring's stage of growth.

If teens are still lured by the shopping mall where they travel in a horde trying to escape adult life, they may not be ready for college and may be more vulnerable to its dangers, he said.

By contrast, those who start college "with their eye on the adult world" tended to be successful, Hunt said.

The young person more likely to avoid danger is one who has adult role models to emulate, goals and the ability to be alone. It also helps to have moved beyond the adolescent stage of trying to please people and to be working toward an expertise in something that's not dependent on the approval of others.

Hunt suggests that students who are still very peer-oriented work for a year — learning to accept responsibility — before going into a college situation where they're without supervision.

Sometimes all it takes to make a successful student is time.

"Older students are much more capable of being self-directed and much less inclined to be dragged around by peer pressure," said Hunt, whose book is "Misunderstanding the Assignment: Teenage Students, College Writing, and the Pains of Growth."

Fassler's survey had similar findings.

"Underage persons do the heaviest drinking," wrote one Hawai'i student attending Boston University. "They come to college and are swept away by the amount of freedom they have, I suppose, and go wild. ... I am pretty sure that many of the girls do not realize that a big part of the 'freshman 15' is from drinking."

"They have alcohol surveys here and they say that only 75 percent drink an average four drinks a week. HA!" wrote a Hawai'i student attending the University of Idaho. "Most people I know who drink will drink to get trashed ... I know people who get drunk 3-4 times a week."

But college counseling in high school is more likely to focus on the academics of an institution than the riskier parts of campus life.

"Drinking is absolutely over the top in most of these schools, and nobody tells you that, guidance counselors especially," Fassler said. "Most parents are completely unaware of the extent of the drinking problem at the college their student is going to. There's a tremendous amount of drinking in the dorms, and for girls this presents significant problems."

'Candies or Condoms'

Colleges have seen a liberalization of their attitudes since the 1960s. That has meant easier access to liquor and drugs and sexual freedom. While many college dormitories liberally hand out condoms for safety, the message for some is that sex is just part of the experience.

At Occidental College in Los Angeles, one student noted that dorm resident advisers come knocking on doors every night with a bucket, offering "Candies or Condoms."

At UH-Manoa they aren't handed out in the dorms, said a Manoa counselor, but are free at the campus Health Center.

According to statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, among the nation's approximately 17.4 million college students, 400,000 — or about 2 percent — between the ages of 18 and 24 report having unprotected sex; 100,000 in that same age range report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex; and more than 70,000 were victims of date rape.

The latest UH-Manoa crime statistics show seven rapes in 2002, with at least three related to drinking. The young women woke up in their dorm rooms in the morning with men in their beds. They'd been drinking, and hadn't locked their doors, according to the reports.

Federal law now requires colleges to post crime statistics annually on their Web sites, so families can look at numbers beforehand for schools in which they're interested. But these statistics reflect incidents reported to authorities, which may be just a fraction of what's really occurring.

At UH-Manoa, drinking has spawned violence in the past, including a dorm fight last year in which two students suffered concussions and serious cuts from broken bottles. Racial tensions were blamed as a cause.

"The fights we get, certainly. Property damage we get," says Michael Taleff, counselor and coordinator of the UH-Manoa Center for Substance Abuse. "They get beer muscles. There's this looking and posturing. Guys tend to do that."

But it only becomes a campus crime statistic when noise or rowdy behavior brings the drinking to official attention, said UH Housing Director Darryl Zehner, even though dorm rules follow state law of a legal drinking age of 21.

"I'm realistic. Students will drink," Zehner said. "When it's brought to our attention, then they face the consequences. We take seriously violations of the drinking laws." Sanctions range from counseling to removal from on-campus housing.

Manoa Chancellor Peter Englert has made it clear he wants alternatives to stem liquor and drug use. Englert moved into the dorms for several weeks last year, plus Taleff took him on an informal late evening dorm tour.

"He got an eyeful," Taleff said. "He wants it made very clear he wants to change the culture down there. He's voiced his concerns about drugs and drinking on campus."

Zehner said UH has suffered from a small group of students who were already drinkers when they came to campus. "We see students who have been drinking throughout high school," he said. "Research shows students have started to drink as early as junior high."

But Taleff says Hawai'i's Asian cultural overlay may actually diminish the amount of freshman drinking in comparison to West Coast Pac-10 schools, NCAA Division I schools and those with strong systems of fraternities and sororities or large dorm populations. "There's a cultural spin here you don't get on the Mainland because of the Asian population and honor to family and not being disrespectful," he said.

Nonetheless, he admits UH sees the common spike in drinking among the freshmen class as students feel a release of parental oversight. "They don't know what to do with this freedom," he said. "(They think,) 'This feels good;

I want to spread my wings a little,' but unfortunately some spread the wings a little too much."

Liability questions

The issue of campus drinking is beginning to raise questions of liability for American colleges, Fassler said. "Colleges are now faced with the problem, 'OK, if I've tolerated this or even supplied the booze and the kid does something bad, am I liable?' " he said. In connection with that worry, a group of Massachusetts colleges is looking more seriously at how to curb drinking on campus.

National surveys detail some of the impact. NIAA statistics show that 1,400 college students between ages 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle accidents. Another 500,000 are injured under the influence of alcohol.

After the death last year of UH student Jake Elmore, who mixed alcohol and methadone, Manoa counseling sessions were beefed up to include warnings about dangerous combinations, and a program of late-night activities one weekend a month was begun to offer alternatives to drinking.

Those efforts will be redoubled this year in an informal program of volleyball and basketball games called "Balls between the Halls." In coordination with the student government, events will be scheduled between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. several weekends a month.

"Every single Friday night that we had an activity and doubled security, our incidents of drug and alcohol problems were way down," Taleff said. "What we're trying to do is give the student options. We're going to compete with the drinking."

Fassler recommends that parents talk to their students about some of these issues. But he also notes that in the summer before they leave, college-bound freshmen are busy bonding with their friends — almost as if they're a group of Navy SEALs going off into battle.

He calls it "Hell Summer," but said it's an important emotional transition for students. "There's an extreme, tight bonding between friends. And the parent becomes something like the enemy. It's because of this need to separate.

"It's hellish for the parents," he said. "The child stays up late and experiments with drinking, perhaps drugs, and bonds with his or her fellow students before they head off. It's a period of enormous anxiety for students, which drives them even closer together because they don't know what to expect when they get there."

Fassler, who has taught high school and studied guidance counseling at Columbia University, remembers sleepless nights waiting for his daughter. "We would sit on the edge of the bed at 4 in the morning gazing out the window, just hoping the child would come home. It's extremely stressful and nobody has ever written what parents are going through.

"It's a phenomenon I wish someone had warned us about," he says.

But he added, it's all part of the process toward independence.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.