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Joanna Weiss

Fighting binge drinking in innovative ways

We think of anthropology as the study of faraway cultures, but sometimes, the most useful truths are close to home. So it might be at Dartmouth College, where a group of anthropology students is deep at work this semester, trying to figure out why college students drink too much.

In general, binge drinking isn’t seen as a mystery so much as an age-old fact, for which the response tends to range from “kids will be kids” to “woe is us.” Blame is often laid on immutable facts; a recent Rolling Stone article laid Dartmouth’s heavy-drinking culture on the fact that there’s not much to do in Hanover, New Hampshire. (Funny, plenty of frat kids in Boston still find reasons to drink themselves stupid.)

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The 14 students in Professor Sienna Craig’s medical anthropology class are applying research methods to understand what their classmates are actually thinking. As they interview students, they’re looking at broad ideas: What does it feel like to be “normal”? What role does gender play? How much do overscheduled students schedule in their drinking, the way they do their studying? How is drinking a part of the need to fit in, to push boundaries?

These are big questions at Dartmouth, which has faced a rough spring, PR-wise, after one student alleged some repulsive examples of fraternity hazing, fueled by large quantities of booze. (The innovations included human waste in kiddie pools and a new hybrid food form called a “vomlet.”) But while Dartmouth has been cast, fairly or not, as ground zero for the problem, it has also been a driving force behind a possible solution, for which Craig’s anthropology class is one small part. It’s an attempt to change the culture, not just of drinking, but of intervention.

The anti-drinking project was launched in 2010 by Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim, the public health expert who just departed to lead the World Bank. Kim bemoaned the fact that nearly 2,000 college-age students die every year from alcohol-related injuries. He wanted to attack the problem, not with rules, but with research.

He formed the National Learning Collaborative on High Risk Drinking, involving 32 colleges across the country, which has begun to test a range of anti-drinking programs and compare data to see what actually works.

Many of the ideas, now at play on Dartmouth’s campus, have to do with psychology: conducting motivational interviews with students deemed at risk of heavy drinking, or students who have drunk so much they needed medical help. Some other intriguing ideas involve students stopping each other from drinking. In one dorm, RAs are now charged with keeping freshmen from “pre-gaming,” drinking at home before they head out for the night.

It’s an attempt to change the culture, not just of drinking, but of intervention.

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And from Haverford College, Dartmouth has borrowed a program it calls the “Green Team”: a group of students paid to go to parties sober, and trained to intervene when students risk losing control. The Green Team pays better than most work-study jobs, which helps explain why some 400 students have taken the training. But party hosts appreciate it, too; fraternities often request a Green Team presence, said Aurora Matzkin, who heads the collaborative efforts on Dartmouth’s campus.

Students know that there’s plenty of amnesty: The Green Team students aren’t charged with enforcing the drinking age. An interview often takes the place of a punishment. The purpose isn’t discipline; it’s change.

Craig said her anthropology students, who will share their findings with the college, also aren’t trying to judge: “It doesn’t start with the assumption that all of this is bad and we have to stop all of it.” Perhaps for that reason, they’ve found plenty of peers who are willing to share their thoughts. Students know that people across the country have been talking about Dartmouth this spring. This is their chance to talk back.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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