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With first semester at Duke comes first drinks for some

Perched in an East Campus tree late at night, Ben swung and hooted like a monkey, telling every girl who walked by how beautiful she was. It was one of Ben’s first times drinking, and he succeeded in getting drunk.

The freshman was not the only one over his head during orientation week. With ACES, food points and dorm politics, freshmen already have plenty to adjust to. But many like Ben are also experimenting with alcohol for the first time.

“The first week here was crazy,” said Lauren, a freshman who, like Ben, declined to have her real name printed for legal purposes. “Everyone went out every night, and I know there were a lot of kids who hadn’t drunk before and had a lot of problems with it. They found out the hard way that they probably shouldn’t have drunk as much as they did.”

According to the Office of Student Conduct’s 2008-09 Alcohol Statistics Summary, 63 percent of alcohol-related medical calls to Duke University Police Department and Emergency Medical Services involved freshmen last year. Sue Wasiolek, dean of students and assistant vice president for student affairs, thinks there is a simple explanation.

“Many [freshmen] have not had experience [with alcohol] before they get here, and that contributes to their higher likelihood to get in trouble,” Wasiolek said.

Those students must grapple with tough questions when they arrive on campus.

“It’s weird coming into it because you A) want to look like you have been there, but B) you don’t know how to act like you’ve been there,” said Jake, a sophomore fraternity member who also declined to have his real name printed. “Do you drink a lot to show how much you can drink? Do you avoid getting beyond drunk?”

Jake added that he did not drink until he arrived on campus.

Duke students chose not to drink in high school for a variety of reasons. Some students were worried about getting caught, while others thought it would be a distraction.

“In high school, my friends drank, but I never did because I was focused on getting into a good college,” said junior Jenni Brandon.

Yet many students switch from designated drivers to Shooters II regulars when they come to Duke. Tom Szigethy, associate dean and director of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Health Promotion Center, explained that this trend represents a switch in students’ perceptions about alcohol.

Research shows that students who partied hard in high school often do not make it to college, he said. The students who stayed clean to earn admission to a top university feel like they can finally let loose.

“College students adopt the attitude of, ‘Oh, I have arrived,’” he said.

Ben echoed this sentiment. He was so proud to be at Duke that he felt like celebrating. That’s how he ended up in the tree.

Freshmen who are determined to assimilate must figure out how and where to drink for the first time, often turning to their residence assistants, first-year advisory counselors and pre-orientation program leaders for guidance. Jake remembers how thankful he was to have his FAC present for those first sips.

“He didn’t force anything on us, and it was a good atmosphere,” he said.

Although Wasiolek said she is disappointed that student leaders are teaching freshmen to hold their liquor, she said she hopes that these groups “provide a safety net” for students.

Students said it can be hard to abstain in a culture where drinking is central to the social scene. Freshmen should remember their values despite the whirlwind of the first semester, said Gary Glass, assistant director for outreach and developmental programming at Counseling and Psychological Services.

“My guess is Duke students don’t require their friends to drink, but it takes some courage and autonomy to admit you don’t want to,” he said.

Nevertheless, many freshmen make that decision. Sophomore Jenny Denton said she drinks now but did not at first.

“I’m really glad I took my time with the whole thing,” she said. “I never made a fool of myself. I’m just so glad I didn’t add alcohol to the list of new things I was trying.”

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