ANNAPOLIS – St. Mary’s College of Maryland junior Shane Eyler has a gallon of milk, bottles of cranberry and apple juice, and an assortment of food products in his refrigerator. What’s missing? Beer.
Eyler is one of a growing number of students who are abandoning the stereotypical “Animal House” image of college life in favor of alcohol-free campus residences.
Substance and alcohol free environment programs, such as the St. Mary’s SAFE House where Eyler lives, are cropping up at schools all over the country. Towson University and Loyola College in Maryland are among other area schools that provide such residence programs.
The St. Mary’s SAFE House requires students to sign a contract stating they will abstain from the use of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs within their living environment. The participants are also prohibited from returning to their residence while intoxicated.
Despite the restrictions, participation in the St. Mary’s program increased from 24 to 36 students since last year. The school has about 2,000 students.
“We had to turn away students,” said Kelly Smolinsky, who works in the residence life department at St. Mary’s. “We had more student interest this year than last.”
The increased size and number of these programs reflects a growing desire among some students to escape the second-hand effects of alcohol use on campus, which often include sleep and studying disruptions and property damage.
“I’m friends with a lot of people who have had issues,” said Brian Tennyson, a sophomore at St. Mary’s, who returned to SAFE House this semester after having lived there last year. “I just decided I wanted to continue in an environment where I don’t have to worry about that.”
As part of this year’s St. Mary’s program, participants are required to host three outreach events each semester. Last year, these events included games of football and capture the flag, as well as an evening of gift-wrapping presents for charity.
“The spirit of it is that we provide an activity that is an alternative to drinking,” said Tennyson. “Essentially, it’s to show people that they don’t have to drink all the time to have fun – or they don’t have to drink at all to have fun.”
Students in the program agree this outreach is valuable because it opens up communication between SAFE House participants and the general campus.
“There is a certain stigma when they first meet you,” said Eyler, referring to students who live in traditional residences on campus. Participants are sometimes viewed negatively by their peers because of perceptions that students who refrain from alcohol use are dull and prudish.
SAFE House participants, however, do not actually need to abstain from drinking entirely to be part of the program.
A study published in 2001 by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 32 percent of students who lived in substance-free housing still drank heavily, or had at least four drinks in a row during the two weeks prior to when the study was performed. The study was based on a poll of students from 52 colleges across the United States.
“I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with drinking in moderation,” said 21-year-old Eyler. “It’s drinking in excess that I have a problem with.”
Regardless of a student’s habits in regard to alcohol outside of the residence, SAFE programs like the one at St. Mary’s are receiving positive feedback for their ability to provide an alternative to what is often alcohol-riddled campus housing.
“All in all, I think the program works pretty well,” said Eyler.