It’s one of the first things they tell you on the admissions tour. Right on the leafy sidewalk between the administration building and the student union, it pops out: “We’re a dry campus!” The nicely dressed, backward-walking tour guide smiles and makes eye contact with the parents in the group, while the prospective students shift uneasily. A dry campus? How do you have fun on the weekends? Doesn’t everybody go to college to drink?
Sometimes it did seem like everybody went to college to drink, even on a campus that had supposedly banned alcohol its premises. St. Olaf College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, has been dry since it was founded by Lutheran Norwegian immigrants in 1874. Despite its conservative heritage, my “dry” college was no different from a state university in many respects — house parties, beer pong and recycling bins overflowing with liquor bottles were the norm on most weekends.
The difference was the amount of effort we had to exert to hide our alcohol use. At St. Olaf, you had to be clever. One guy famously tried to sneak a case of beer into the dorm by claiming that the square bulge under his sweatshirt was a tumor; water bottles often turned out to hold straight vodka; and I once saw a girl use a syringe to inject rum into a juice box.
While I never actively agreed with the alcohol policy, it didn’t affect my life much during my first two years at college. My friends didn’t drink and I didn’t have much experience with alcohol, so I mostly ignored the issue. By my junior year, however, things had changed. Most of my friends drank regularly, I turned 21, and I also became an RA. This meant that I was expected to enforce the alcohol policy, potentially getting my friends and classmates in trouble if I caught them with booze. All of a sudden, the dry campus became a bigger deal than I ever expected.
Busting up parties and sniffing around the halls for the telltale smell of beer was never thrilling for me the way it seemed to be for some of my RA colleagues. The problem was that I didn’t follow the alcohol policy myself. Once I turned 21, I had a hard time accepting that my school had the right to tell me not to drink. I tried to imbibe mostly off campus, but on a few memorable occasions a friend hosted a dorm room party that was too good to resist, so I broke the rules.
During my junior year, some friends hosted a party in their room that I decided to attend. I drank too much vodka and grapefruit juice, accused my best friend’s boyfriend of not liking me, and took some truly hideous photos, which of course ended up on Facebook, before stumbling home. It was the first time I had come back to the dorm drunk, and figuring out how to use the elevator took some time. So did finding my room and unlocking my door. Luckily, I didn’t run into any of my residents. Half an hour later, when I needed to throw up, I was too scared to go to the bathroom for fear I would be seen or heard. And that’s how I ended up on the floor in my underwear, puking into a trash can and tearing up over the fact that I was such a bad role model. I never came home that drunk again.
Halloween rolled around two weeks later and St. Olaf sent nine students to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, reinforcing my knowledge that the dry campus policy was not only ineffective, it was also downright dangerous. I’ve seen friends down eight or nine shots in succession before heading out onto campus for a dance or a concert. What could be an evening of slow, more relaxed drinking turns into a rush to get as drunk as possible before leaving the safety of your dorm room.
I wish there was a six-week course or an informational video that could illustrate the not-so-glamorous side of college drinking, but nothing can simulate the “Oh my god, really?” feeling that comes with discovering surprise vomit in your bathroom when you are stone sober. That’s just something that everyone needs to experience for themselves.
I’m sure the prospective students touring St. Olaf’s beautiful campus right now are having their college party fantasies ruined by some smiley tour guide proclaiming the wonders of the dry campus. They shouldn’t worry too much. The liquor store is only a mile away, and there are plenty of upperclassmen willing to provide IDs for a fee. The newbies will find out soon enough that college isn’t just about drinking — there are, after all, concerts to attend, video game competitions to enter, sports to play, and possibly books to open. While some students choose alcohol as their number-one college activity, most people I knew had a lot more going on in their lives than the contents of their secret booze stashes.
As an RA and professional party pooper, I may not have had the “typical” college experience, but I am happy with my choices. I had a lot of fun, watched my friend drink a juice box filled with rum, and stayed out of the hospital — all while living the (mostly) dry life.
This selection is excerpted from the essay “Living the Dry Life, On Campus” by Anna Klenke in the anthology Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press, September 2012)
Photo credit: Tim Wayne