FIPSE Focuses on Alternatives to Drinking, Drugs

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

(from left) Lisa Sindre '97, resident advisor for Healthy Alternatives House, and Mary Cox, Director of Drug & Alcohol Education

Who says a leopard can never change its spots? certainly not Janet Richardson, assistant vice president for student affairs, or Mary Cox, director of drug and alcohol education. Richardson is the director and Cox the coordinator of "A Call for Action: Changing Campus Norms," an innovative prevention program that focuses on creating a campus environment that supports and strengthens students' resistance to alcohol and other drugs. The program brings about changes in attitudes, expectations and beliefs by promoting new behaviors and ways to have fun without these substances.

WPI Healthy Alternatives, as the program is known on campus, is supplemented by a two-year, $65,000 FIPSE (Funds for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education) grant. The grant, which expires in 1999, continues initiatives that began in 1993 when a $223,000 FIPSE grant enabled WPI to establish the Healthy Alternatives Office. In 1995, the university received a $45,000 consortia grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create a drug- and violence-prevention program with members of the Colleges of Worcester Consortium.

A recent CORE Alcohol and Other Drugs survey indicates that college students nationwide spend about $4.2 billion annually on alcohol. "At WPI, alcohol translates to binge drinking," says Richardson. "It is our No. 1 campus problem - one that the FIPSE grant is helping us get a handle on."

"Our program is not about prohibition," says Cox. "That's not realistic in any culture. But we know from a 1995 study that 68 percent of our students report that they have had their study or sleep time interrupted by people abusing drugs or alcohol. We want to replace norms that support that type of behavior with a comprehensive drug- and violence-free learning and social environment."

Unlike some schools that use a medical model focused on treating and fixing the problem, WPI employs an educational model in which the student becomes part of the change. "We offer them constructive leisure choices based on their interests as college students and young adults," says Cox. "When are the students abusing alcohol? In their leisure time! So it only makes sense to utilize a grassroots approach to addressing the behavior."

"We view ourselves as proactive, rather than reactive when it comes to alcohol," adds Richardson. "We're proud of that. On the other hand, we also help abusers by offering them counseling and medical assistance."

One of the strongest components of Healthy Alternatives is its emphasis on empowering students to feel safe and comfortable in an environment of their own choosing. "All students enjoy socializing with their peers," says Cox, "but many prefer to do so in a nonpressure, alcohol- and drug-free atmosphere."To that end, WPI offers a wider range of substance- free activities, including "Rock the Halls" parties, "Up All Night" finals week breakfasts, and events sponsored by BACCHUS (Boosting Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students). Last year, a midnight basketball tournament proved to be immensely popular, says Richardson. "It turned out to be a very rewarding alternative all around - and no alcohol was allowed!"

Lisa Sundre '97 and Spero Tsefrekas '98 have found Healthy Alternatives to be rewarding up close and personal. Lisa, for example, is the resident advisor for the university's Healthy Alternatives House at 26 Hackfeld Road, which offers a coed, smoke- and substance-free living environment to students who prefer this lifestyle. "Some residents choose to be fit and eat healthy food, but this is not a house requirement," she says. "Most feel free to develop their own interests."

One of the most popular nonalcoholic activities enjoyed by residents is the annual Super Bowl party, Lisa notes. Karaoke nights and pizza parties are also well-attended. "What we do best is provide students with surroundings in which they can feel comfortable," she says.

Spero, a resident advisor in Daniels Hall, is connected to Healthy Alternatives through his Humanities Sufficiency, for which he put together a brochure for campus distribution that focused on the myths about drinking. "Many college students believe that drinking causes them to forget their problems, enhances sex appeal, and is a necessary ingredient of every party," he says. The truth, he claims, is that alcohol provides a false reality and causes far more problems than it solves, such as blackouts and hangovers. "Make your own decisions," he says. "Don't have them chosen for you by your peers."

Richardson and Cox say popular attitudes change slowly but there are signs that implementation of alternatives such as those espoused by Lisa and Spero have made an appreciable difference in campus life. Already the leopards are beginning to change their spots!