Dear Student Affairs:
We need to talk.
11 years ago, I attended my first ACPA conference. A college senior at the time, I was excited to meet up with my friends already in graduate school for student affairs administration and network for graduate assistantships.
Everyone I wanted to meet up with asked me to meet them at the bar.
My first trip to the bar, I saw a hall director from my college so tipsy he or she couldn’t walk straight. They were not alone. I wasn’t a big drinker at the time, and was so worried about making a good impression, so I stuck to pop or water. But every time I went to that bar, there were conference attendees, adorned with the requisite lanyard, getting absolutely trashed.
When I returned to campus and my roommate asked me what the conference was like, I answered honestly. “It’s a place where everyone who tells us not to drink goes to drink.”
I’ve now been in the field eleven years, and alcohol use and abuse that proliferates the field is concerning, especially because we are the ones looking to teach young adults healthy drinking habits.
Those of us in the field of student affairs need to look at our relationships with alcohol and what messages it sends. Currently, some of us can’t have brainstorming sessions outside of a bar setting. We can’t have farewell parties without an open bar. Our senior farewell dinners have a larger alcohol bill than food bill. Our conferences always start and end with socials that end with nights at the hotel bar and then glassy-eyed looks the next morning. If someone attends an event and doesn’t drink, we start asking questions why that person isn’t drinking (even though it’s none of our business.)
The results: Emails encouraged and fueled by several drinks with colleagues wreck cross-department relationships. Students hit up tipsy administrators for favors that the administrators can’t remember the next day. Staff members who don’t attend events at bars or don’t drink at them are looked at differently and get left out of future invitations.
After a day where I received another invite to a work brainstorming session that read, “We’ll imbibe and brainstorm,” and got another directive to read a project proposal and then “talk about it over beverages with colleagues,” I snapped.
What message are we sending to our students? We tell them not to drink, and then go binge drink ourselves? We have policies that forbid them from having alcohol at their events, but then we can’t hold our own events without a bar?
What type of environment are we creating for those staff in student affairs who choose not to drink or cannot drink? Five years ago, I had two director-level colleagues pregnant at once. They were expected to attend events where everyone was getting sloshed around them. I imagine it had to be extremely uncomfortable, especially before they had told everyone their status yet. We once had two staff members who always asked us to hold some (not all) social events outside of bars because neither drank alcohol and wanted to see us offer other options. Their colleagues laughed and refused to attend the two events we didn’t have at a bar. We had to go back to having all staff social events at a bar just to get people to show up.
Granted, the issue is not just in student affairs and higher education. Tech companies and start-ups brag about “Craft Beer Wednesdays” and “Beer Cart Fridays.” And what’s any office holiday party without a spiked egg nog offering?
I don’t want to deny anyone their choice to drink. I appreciate the fun of a margarita, I enjoy trying new white wines, and despite how “basic” it makes me, I do love pumpkin beer season. But I do want workplaces, particularly in higher education, to examine the volume that they do and the correlation that it may force between productivity, belonging and drinking.
I want to be a good colleague. I shouldn’t have to drink in order to be one. Especially in a field where we expect our students to be responsible with alcohol, we ought to be responsible ourselves.