Dorms offer taste of the good life

October 25, 1996

When Christian Riser told his classmates at the University of Maryland that he lived on a dormitory floor where smoking and drinking were banned, they asked him what on earth he did for fun.

"People are surprised because we found you don't need drugs or alcohol or cigarettes to have a good time in college," said Mr Riser, a second-year student.

More than 1,000 of the 8,000 resident students at the university this year chose to live in substance-free dorms, up from a mere 120 when the option first was made available in 1993.

Hundreds more are on a waiting list. And other campuses that offer alcohol- and smoke-free housing are reporting similar successes.

"A lot of students are paying for their own education and they're paying a lot of money to go to any institution, and I think they take the academics much more seriously," said Karla Shepherd, Maryland's coordinator of residential programs and the originator of the special housing plan. Substance-free dorms, she said, offer fewer distractions.

Students who live in substance-free housing sign contracts agreeing not to bring alcohol or tobacco into their rooms; illegal drugs are banned in all dorms. The university says only ten students have ever broken their pledges. They were moved to other buildings.

"The atmosphere that's been created allows me to be able to both live and study in the same place," said Mr Riser.

"That may sound corny, but when you come back you don't have to worry about people who are high on drugs or drunk. If you want to study, you can still study. If you want to party, you can go out and party," he said.

The University of Michigan this year has 2,600 students living in its drug-free dorms. Vassar, Washington University in St Louis and the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York also offer popular substance-free housing.

Even some university fraternities, notorious for social excess, have declared alcohol and cigarettes off-limits. The University of Wisconsin's Theta Chi fraternity, for instance, banned smoking and drinking after being suspended last year by its national headquarters for hazing (beating) and drug violations. Two hundred chapters of Sigma Nu and a handful of other fraternities at the University of Illinois, Purdue University and Indiana University also have gone substance-free.

Proponents of the idea say students in substance-free housing are more health-conscious and more serious about their education. Some choose it because they' have made a commitment not to smoke, drink or use drugs for religious or medical reasons. Some are trying to avoid temptation.

"They do the same things that everybody else does, just without the drinking," said Ms Shepherd.

Delighted administrators, who report fewer incidents of violence and vandalism, also fear the trend may be short-lived.

The government reported in August that drug use among 12 to 17-year-olds rose from 5.3 per cent of those surveyed in 1992 to 10.9 per cent last year.

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