A dangerous start: the “college effect”

She took a deep breath in, relieving tense, stress-filled air. Eye contact slowly fell, looking down towards her feet, discouraged and hopeless as she began to reflect on her freshman year so far.

Emily Blumenfeld, a first-year student at Wake Forest, has been shocked, to say the least, by the university’s party-driven culture.

“The first week I woke up every night and saw an ambulance outside my dorm,” Blumenfeld said, “I think at least one person went to the hospital each night during orientation week.”

In 2015-2016, 190 students on campus received medical intervention for alcohol abuse. Of those 190 students, nearly half were freshmen. Experiencing the freshman “college effect,” the Wake Forest Class of 2020 is off to a dangerous start.

Peter Rives, assistant director of Wellbeing — Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention, gave insight on the college effect in terms of Wake Forest.

“The college effect is a spike in high-risk drinking behaviors that happens when people arrive at college,” Rives said. “And if you look at national averages, we have a slightly higher number of high risk-drinkers.”

Last year, Wake Forest averaged 12 emergency room transports a month for alcohol poisoning. In addition, out of the 190 students in need of medical intervention for alcohol abuse, 42 students were sophomores. The freshman class doubled that count with a total of 87 students. Students are only transported to the hospital when their lives are in danger.

Krishna Chopra, a freshman at Wake Forest, opened up about her own experience of the college effect.

“The environment of Wake Forest changes you,” Chopra said, “You feel like you have to fit in, so you jump into the party-social environment.”

Blumenfeld, a friend of Chopra’s, chimed in.

“A few times I’ve thought, ‘everyone is doing it’,” Blumenfeld said. “Sometimes, I think it’d be easier to fit in at Wake if I went out and partied — even if that’s not staying true to who I am.”

Matt Clifford, associate dean of Students and Student Conduct, believes the party-centered atmosphere is determined by the students themselves.

“If students believe the work hard-play hard is a part of their culture, then it is,” Clifford said. “When we look to create effective programs for sustained culture change, it all comes down to peer education.”

Rives highlighted the effectiveness of AlcoholEdu, an online, interactive peer program designed to increase safe decision-making for incoming freshmen, but it seems ambulances are still arriving weekend after weekend.

According to Rives, research shows that students who have not used AlcoholEdu versus those who have are five times more likely to need medical intervention for alcohol.

Yet, freshmen are thrown into a new environment with high academic expectations, all while experiencing new social pressures. Alcohol not only becomes a stress-reliever but what both Rives and Clifford deem as “a social lubricant.”

“I think the academic rigor and the social pressure of freshman year can lead students to cope with their stress, anxiety and fatigue in ways that are maladaptive,” Rives said.

With the Office of Wellbeing, Rives hopes to implement more adaptive strategies — such as mindfulness, meditation, even puppies — to combat stress and fight the Wake Forest work hard-play hard stigma, along with the freshman college effect.

“Culture change is possible, but culture change is slow,” Rives said, “I have to believe this can change, or it will be a really depressing job.”