The Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media recently shared some pretty serious data. According to the fall 2005 National College Health Assessment from the American College Health Association (www.acha.org), half of college males and one-third of college females reported being binge drinkers (defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row). Twenty-two percent of the men and 10 percent of the women said they drank that much at least three times in the previous two weeks.
According to the Harvard project, which focused on ameliorating mental-health and substance-abuse-related issues among students as they transition from high school to college: "Growing numbers of high school and college students are struggling with mental, emotional, and behavioral health problems that can undermine their success, harm their health, or even end their lives."
Such pronouncements are, unfortunately, not likely to be surprising to most college administrators handling the primary and secondary effects of students' substance use and mental health concerns. As seems clear, most students with substance abuse issues begin using drugs and alcohol in or even before high school; they bring their patterns and predilections with them to college.
What might be more intriguing to college officials is the current "counterculture" that, anecdotally at least, seems to be growing in various corners among diverse groups of teens. From those serving their school through such clubs as SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving, or Students Against Destructive Decisions), to punk rockers professing allegiance to the Straight Edge movement, to any number of students who for religious, moral, health, familial, or personal reasons have chosen to avoid drugs and alcohol, there seem to be more students deciding not to drink or do drugs.
These students often work to educate and protect their peers, and they look for institutions of higher education where drinking and drugs are not part of an overwhelming mainstream. They seek IHEs where fraternities and sororities do not dominate social life. They are excited to find so-called "chem-free" or "substance-free" housing. They want colleges that provide interesting social and residential life alternatives, and that enroll a student body with diverse interests and involvements. These students typically recognize that there will be drugs and drinking at almost every school, and that they will need to make personal choices about their own behavior. Yet, they are looking for colleges to be allies with them to help them protect themselves.
Increasingly, we are witnessing students sharing highly personal stories and statements pertaining to their views about drugs and alcohol. We'll leave aside for now the issues related to mental health and learning disabilities, two other areas where students are addressing sensitive topics in their admissions applications.
We were struck recently by the concurrence of three completely different students who wrote in unique ways about their views on substance use and the importance to them of finding a college that will appreciate the difficult stand they have taken in high school. We thought sharing their stories would help college readers gain some appreciation for their perspectives and those of others like them.
Additionally, we want to make a plea here, particularly to Admissions staff and administrators: These kinds of students are baring their souls to you, and really taking a risk by sharing these types of statements. We hope that you will take essays and students like them at face value, and try to avoid cynicism or smugness in reading them. Consider how difficult it is for students to take stands like these in high schools today, and how hard it is to share their feelings with strangers in the essay-writing process.
"Being different is something that most kids are afraid to be, but something that I strive to be. This desire manifests itself through my opinions and choices regarding teenage drug and alcohol use. For today's youth, drinking, smoking pot, and experimenting with drugs is not the nonconformist path to take, but rather the stereotypical path that all regular kids, daring to be different, take."
So writes a talented boarding school student as he proceeds to relate the work and meaning of Walt Whitman's writing-and belief in individualism-to his own approach to life.
"By making the simple choice to oppose such things as drugs, I set myself apart from conformity and by doing so I am introduced to different people and different experiences. From these experiences I can gain knowledge to help me become a better human being. And from there, I hope to influence others around me in a positive way."
Did this student need to make this type of pronouncement in his college application essay? No, but clearly his choice not to use drugs and alcohol has become a personally defining stance for him. In a sense, he wanted to take the risk of sharing this passionate belief, in a very appropriate and powerful manner, in order to offer colleges a glimpse of what is truly important to him.
Another strong student shared the following as the background for her stance on substance use: "I've always struggled to accept my parents' flaws, particularly my dad's alcoholism." How's that for an essay opener? She goes on to discuss her relationship with her father, her attempts to persuade him to stop drinking, and their eventual truce as he attempted not to drink in her presence.
"The most important thing I've learned from my dad's drinking is that, though I cannot correct other people's behavior on my own whims, I can correct my own. My dad's drinking has given me a gift. I am able to stand at a party with friends and not want to touch alcohol. To me, the sacrifice of my body and mind is not worth it. It's not worth upsetting a loved one or letting myself down. Deliberately altering the state of my mind seems absurd. My brain is not something I want to waste, even for just a few moments of relaxation."
One wonders how many other students share similar concerns about their parents, relatives, and friends; most are not confident enough to share these kinds of reasons as the grounds for their personal stance. Again, was sharing this story a risk for this applicant? Yes, and we discussed the reasons with her. Nevertheless, she felt quite strongly that this helped identify who she is, and her hope that a college would be open to understanding her views.
A third student, this time one interested in music, discussed his path toward adopting the Straight Edge lifestyle: "The single most influential event of my life was petting my cat three years ago. This event shaped who I am completely and changed the way I look at life and living things." From recognizing his empathy toward animals, this student developed a passionate belief in vegetarianism and then veganism. He began to work on behalf of the animal rights movement.
Elsewhere he talks about how his music tastes reflect his philosophy: "Minor Threat was part of the first breed of hardcore bands in the early '80s that took punk rock and pushed it to the extreme. The ideas that are discussed in the lyrical content are ideas that I have lived my life around. Minor Threat coined the term and lifestyle of 'Straight Edge,' which promotes a youth culture that is drug- and alcohol-free. This philosophy is something that I live my life by and has made me an extremely positive, excited person."
Would many colleges see this student as "alternative"? Certainly. But his hope is to find an accepting college community that would celebrate his personal choices and be open to students with his interests and lifestyle.
All three of these students represent what we see as a growing trend and reaction to the prevalence and, oftentimes, mythologies, of drinking and drug use on many college and university campuses. Our hope is that they, and others like them, will benefit from an open-minded review by admissions readers who will see the positive energy and strength of character they will bring to campus.
Perhaps Admissions offices will even consider encouraging students to share such stories and views as they conduct their information sessions on campus, meet with students at their high schools and communities, and revise the instructions for their admissions applications. With more students willing to take a stand among their peers, perhaps colleges will gain allies in their attempts to moderate the effects of drug and alcohol use in their community.
Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.