When bad things happen to drunk students, no doubt there are many who shiver and think: It could have been me. Who hasn't been so sloshed at bar time that the trip home was a little hazy? Who hasn't made at least one really stupid choice while drunk?
Well, Vicki Nickolaisen, for one. The UW junior is one of roughly 3,700 UW students who do not drink at all. Nickolaisen goes to parties with friends who don't drink and watches for the moment when "things start to get crazy," as she puts it. Then she leaves, with her sober friends.
"I'm amazed when people say, 'I can't remember anything I did this weekend.' That's gross," says Nickolaisen. When asked what she does for excitement, the 20-year-old member of the UW equestrian team replies, "I jump horses."
She's in the minority, and not just here, but nationwide. The fact is - sorry, parents - drinking is the norm in college. According to a 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, college students spend $5.5 billion a year on alcohol, more than they shell out for textbooks, soft drinks, tea, milk, juice and coffee combined. And these aren't just a few hard-partying 21-year-olds throwing money down for mugs, kegs and shots. The same study reveals that 63% of underage students admit to boozing at least once during the last month. That's one out of every two students choosing to drink illegally (and spend their hard-earned cash - or their parents' - on alcohol).
UW-Madison is part of an upward trend in college binge drinking that's reached epic proportions - the rate here is an alarming 60%. In 2005, this campus was ranked the number-one party school in the country by the Princeton Review, in a nonscientific sampling of college students nationwide. (The UW dropped out of the most recent Princeton Review ranking.) If you enjoy drinking, this is a great place to be.
But what if you don't?
One afternoon last fall, Jacqui Lawless, a friendly, attractive UW student, struck up a conversation with a classmate after chem lab. He seemed like a nice guy, and Lawless, a freshman at the time, wanted to get to know people.
"I asked him what he was doing that weekend," she recalls. "He told me, 'Getting drunk.' When I told him I'd never been to a party with alcohol, his eyes popped and he said 'are you serious?! You're the biggest loser I've ever met!'"
About 9.5% of UW's 45,000 students are total abstainers, according to e-CHUG, the online survey of campus drinking habits. That is enough people to fill the Union Terrace and the Rathskeller on a Friday night. But UW's sober students don't congregate in packs like their drinking brethren. Their struggle to find one another can be daunting.
"Freshman year, I felt like the only nondrinker in Woody Hall," says Tamara Lawless, Jacqui's older sister, who graduated in May. "I spent first semester moping and bumming in my dorm room."
Other than a single "sober" floor in Witte Hall, there is no alcohol-free residence option at UW (no one's supposed to be drinking in any dorm - or out of it, if they're underage - but this rule is routinely ignored). In the city, alcohol-free club venues are virtually nonexistent, with important exceptions like the university's Club 700, in Union South.
And not even the university knows who the sober students are.
"We have some pretty good information on the high-risk drinkers, but as far as nondrinkers go, the majority of students, especially freshmen, don't necessarily want to label themselves yet," says Sue Crowley, University Health Services director of prevention services. "They're still figuring out who they want to be."
In 2005, Tamara Lawless created Sober Students on Campus, a registered student organization exclusively for nondrinkers. With a laid-back agenda of cards, games and crafts, the group is billed as "a great way for nondrinking students to...enjoy each other's company and spend time away from the campus drinking scene."
Like other RSOs, Sober Students on Campus is entirely student-managed. As the founder Lawless, then a senior, tried to find time to organize bimonthly meetings in between activities for her scholarship program and a stiff course load. She started the group after enduring a lonely freshman year, during which she felt "there was nothing to do that didn't involve drinking."
Health Services' Crowley applauds Lawless' initiative in starting her own student organization.
"That's one of the ways we encourage students to connect," she says. But Crowley is distressed when she hears students say there's nothing to do here but drink. She cites late-night events at the SERF gym, movies at the Rathskeller, and more.
"There are over 1,400 events occurring on campus that are alcohol-free. What's nice about our campus programming is that it's student-led and student-organized, and all the events are listed on the Union Directorate website."
Sure, says Trevor Hart, a spring graduate, but not everybody wants to go hear a speaker on a Friday or Saturday night. He went gone to a few events like that, but weekends roll around 52 times a year, and sometimes, he says, he just wanted to relax and unplug. That meant hanging out with friends, and all of Hart's friends drink. Most of the time, this is okay - Hart chooses his friends based on merits other than sobriety - but sticking to his choice to be sober was not always easy.
"I just wish there was more to do that didn't revolve around 'let's go to this party, let's go to that party,'" says Hart, a nuclear engineering major. "People at parties pry and pry, trying to find out why you don't drink."
Alcoholism runs in Hart's family, and being around drunk people makes him uncomfortable. Early on, he attended a few of the Sober Students on Campus events.
"The activities weren't that interesting," he says. "But I wanted to support them." His tone has a tinge of regret and a hint of bitterness: There is the sense that for Hart, the university offered too little - and now it's too late.
Sober Students on Campus doesn't pretend to be wildly exciting. The group, now headed by Jacqui Lawless and junior Greta Koch, typically has met a couple of times a month for Saturday night card games and other low-key activities. While the email list includes more than 300 names, the turnout for events is usually around 15 or 16. Members run the gamut from shy kids who completely eschew the drinking culture, to self-assured students who move with ease between sober and drinking camps, though they themselves choose not to drink.
Michael Monroe falls into the latter category. The burly junior is a member of the UW marching band (he plays the trumpet). As an abstainer, he's one of the few band members who does not hoist a shot of hard liquor on road trips during ritual celebrations of each "rank," or instrument section.
"I pass on the shot, and just say why I'm proud to be a member of my rank," says Monroe, who doesn't need, or want, to avoid all alcohol-related events.
"My roommate drinks; everyone around me drinks," he says. "Most of my friends have fake IDs. They rag on me a little when I order a Coke, but they respect my decision."
One night last semester, Monroe elected to attend the Sober Students' spring kickoff event rather than hang out in the dorm. He arrived late, after eight other members gathered in the Beefeaters Room on the third floor of the Memorial Union, far from the madding crowd at the Rathskeller two floors below.
Beefeaters has the sealed-in feel of a windowless conference room. A water cooler burped periodically in one corner. But the small group huddled at one end of a large table was far too focused on a fast-moving game of "Eco-Fluxx" to notice the lack of ambience. Conversation was limited, and no wonder: It's an amazingly complicated card game. Rules multiply as you go. If you were drinking, you'd be hopelessly lost.
Tamara Lawless shook back her long brown hair and invitingly rattled a plastic bag: "Swedish fish, anyone? Gummy Bears?" The cards and bags of candy were bright spots of color in the room. The players' faces were fresh and uniformly innocent looking.
Monroe wandered in wearing a bright red Bucky sweatshirt, and Lawless patted the empty chair next to her.
"Hi, you can sit by me," she said. "I won't bite."
When Lawless first started Sober Students on Campus, she said, there was a great deal of buzz. Newspaper articles were followed by pats on the back from university officials. Lately, though, the group's activities had gone largely unnoticed, even though it could use some support.
Around the table after the game, the sober students told drinking stories. Not their own, of course, but tales of drunks invading the student cafe Ed's Express in the wee hours, and fraternity "list parties": "For every guy you put on the list," one student related, "you have to put two girls. They want the girls. And they want to get them drunk."
Perhaps most disturbing was Nickolaisen's tale of a chemistry professor whose "molecules are all related to drugs and alcohol. He's like, 'Today I'll show you how to make heroin, or a date-rape drug, or rum.'"
"Some professors make a running joke of it," said Lawless. "One always says, 'you'll need a six-pack to study for my exam.' If I don't get [alchol-related jokes] from my peers, I get it from my elders."
The sober students were appalled at how drinking wastes both money and time: "I've had friends say they can't plan anything for Saturday because they'll be hung over." "I don't know where I'd get the money." "Well, they just buy 25-cent beers and cut crappy vodka with water. They're not buying fine wine. The goal is to get drunk."
A sober group of students, indeed - and not just because there was no beer on the table. With meetings tucked away on an upper floor of the building that functions as the social heart of the university, Sober Students on Campus feels more like Sober Students Seeking Refuge.
The group is not precisely what Dean of Students Lori Berquam has in mind when she talks about students "finding each other on the basis of their interests."
She has nothing against Sober Students on Campus. But she believes students form deeper friendships and have a more rewarding college experience when they join together to pursue a common passion like community service, or even a casual interest like gaming or table tennis.
"I hear it a lot from various students," she says. "'I don't want to drink.' My response is to drill deeper. Okay, so you don't like to drink. What do you enjoy?"
Berquam and her colleagues encourage students to ask themselves, "What do I want to leave here having accomplished or experienced?" She cites the university's 700 student organizations as resounding proof that students are motivated, willing and able to find each other. She reminds me that "none of our student organizations are supposed to revolve around alcohol."
She has a point - although many of the social organizations I'd characterize as "hanging out" options tend not to meet on weekend nights, which are the toughest for sober students to get through. Last semester, Super Scrabble met twice a month on Sunday afternoons. The SciFi club: Thursday nights. Madison Board Gamers: Wednesdays. Dungeon Masters Association was an exception, offering three meetings every week, including Saturdays, where "fantasy, role-playing and gaming" are the focus.
There are more groups, of course. And if none of the 700 sounds interesting, Berquam says, students can start their own, a fairly easy process involving one orientation session and an online application. Funding is available, too, once students master the grant guidelines.
"I have faith in our students," says Berquam. "They will create a group to meet their needs. If Sober Students goes away, another group will form to fill the void."
Sober Students on Campus filled an important void for Caleb Frostman, a 2007 graduate who went sober early in his sophomore year, after his drinking and drug use, which he'd started in high school, escalated. He sought help through University Health Services, which quickly assigned him a counselor and set him up with a campus support group of students in recovery. He also got connected with Sober Students on Campus (Crowley says UHS routinely refers recovering students to the group).
"That first sober year, I was bored out of my mind, just going to class and working out," says Frostman. "It was great to have Sober Students board games or card games as an option on a Friday or Saturday night. I don't go as much anymore, but it's still nice to get that email once a month, and know they're still hanging together - a group of kids who don't drink."
Frostman didn't look at group listings on the Memorial Union website, though he said it might be a good resource for some. Like other sober students, he was not looking for organized events so much as ways to relax and hang out.
"Easy social choices," is how UW sociology professor Aaron Brower puts it.
"When students say, 'There's nothing to do but drink,' there's some validity to their complaint," he says. "Because liquor licenses are so easy to get, and so profitable, virtually every venue is a bar. Therefore, the easy things - playing pool, listening to music, dancing, hanging out - happen almost exclusively in bars."
Or dorms, where, if you believe the stories, everyone is either drinking, thinking about drinking or drunk. The university, however, has no plans to offer more sober housing. In fact, it is scaling back on sober rooms at Witte Hall.
"We are not getting as many requests for the sober floor," explains Sue Crowley of UHS.
But UW has a serious drinking problem. The binge-drinking rate of 60% was high enough to qualify the school for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to reduce the consequences of high-risk drinking. The initiative, headed up by Brower, is called PACE, for policy, alternatives, community and education. A primary goal, according to the group's website, is "helping first-year students connect on campus...and creating/supporting nonalcohol venues and activities."
Brower admits, though, that his group's efforts focus less on sober students than on the ones who face "big problems, like sexual assault and vandalism," as a result of their drinking habits.
"We are not anti-drinking," he says. "We'd rather help students find ways they can go to bars and parties and either drink responsibly, or feel comfortable saying no."
And so the university is trying to be more conscientious. Brower says PACE has helped craft a "clear and consistent message" about official campus attitudes regarding alcohol. Professors, for instance, are discouraged from using flippant, alcohol-related analogies in class. Tour guides no longer regale visitors with party legends.
There is a sense, among most faculty and staff at least, that UW's drinking is neither a joke nor a cultural touchstone anymore. Many more serious efforts are in place, including big changes in the university's relationship with the city.
"This is a huge, complex organization," says Brower. "We don't make arbitrary rules. We talk about issues in serious ways, raise questions, and make decisions about what to do. That's what universities do."
Still, for Caleb Frostman, who stopped drinking sophomore year, the university's let's-party-like-rock-stars reputation was hard to shake. "Sometimes I still feel that's the reality," he says.
Frostman worked hard on a change of perspective. "Sure, I miss the conviviality of drinking," he says. "But at the end, for me, it wasn't fun anymore. It was lonely. And once I got out of that mindset, I have found other people who don't drink. It's hard sometimes. But they're out there."