The fact that alcohol-free freshers' events are labelled as 'alternative' by universities in the United Kingdom speaks volumes about their reliance on alcohol-based orientation weeks.
University freshers' weeks are fuelled by alcohol. By and large, the first week of the university calendar is structured by strategically planned nights out and hangovers (perhaps with the odd introductory lecture thrown in for good measure). The age-old formula of placing x amount of first years and an abundance of alcoholic drinks within a dark, pulsing room continues to be seen as a success by student unions up and down the country, but is it really what all incoming students want?
Philip is a third year undergraduate. As a moderate drinker, he loved his university's freshers' week, and adds that alcohol made him feel more fluid, encouraging him to be more outgoing and forthcoming in meeting new people. Whilst Philip enjoys alcohol and its effects on his persona, the same cannot be said for all students. Sam, another third year undergraduate, remarks on the isolation he felt during his university arrivals week. Sam felt side-lined by the emphasis on alcohol during his orientation week, and felt that his freshers' week lacked events for students who abstained from drinking.
When everyone stereotypes students as alcoholics, from the press, to the public, to the club promoters and the student unions, is it really that surprising to hear of students being pressured into drinking? Or, if students like Sam do not succumb to pressure, is it fair for them to feel out of place and incompatible with the university which they've worked so hard to get into?
Whilst British universities have long condemned the abuse of alcohol during freshers' weeks, with universities such as the University of Exeter and the University of Newcastle banning sports club initiations for their dangerous and dehumanising exhibitions of binge-drinking, their lack of investment in alcohol-free freshers' events stifles their efforts. A sole emphasis on booze puts unnecessary pressure on students to drink, leaving some students drinking amounts they would never usually consume and leaving others alienated and uncomfortable in their new environments. Students need to be given other ways in which they can engage with their peers, be they organised trips by their universities to tour their local areas and attractions or taster sessions of their sports clubs and societies.
Alcohol will always have a place in the SU bar, but that doesn't mean it should be all that freshers' week has to offer. Universities and student unions owe it to their students to offer a diverse range of freshers' events, for both drinkers and non-drinkers.
Emma is an English and American Literature student at the University of East Anglia
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