We aren’t afraid to drink the spiked Kool-Aid. We love our Kweder Tuesdays, our slap–the–bag BYOs, our handle pulls in dank basements. We use phrases like “I’m trying to blackout tonight” or “I’m too sober for this.” Drinking is an enormous part of our culture—even Playboy knows it. But despite the boozy aura surrounding our social life, not everyone is willing to take a shot.
Roughly 40% of Penn’s student body doesn’t spend Fling, St. Patrick’s Day and Homecoming as a member of the Banker’s Club. According to Penn’s Alcohol & Other Drug Program Initiatives, 4,000 of Penn’s 10,319 undergraduate students drink twice or less a semester . There’s Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA), a Substance-Free Living Residential Program, but for most people who are sober at Penn, living above the influence is just life.
Jamie* is a recovering alcoholic. A junior in Wharton, Jamie found herself in rehab for the second time this past summer— the first being her junior year in high school. She started drinking at age 12, though she says she wouldn’t call herself “an early drinker.” Coming from a family of heavy drinkers, alcohol didn’t seem like a big deal. By age 16, Jamie was emancipated from her family and had added cocaine to her routine.
After her first stint in rehab, Jamie arrived to Penn sober but immediately felt the “incredible pressure to make friends.” If she wasn’t partying, she felt as though she would miss out. Jamie began going out five to six times a week, drinking an average of 10-15 drinks a night. “For a long time I was a highly functional alcoholic,” she says. “I did feel pretty good about my life.”
The moral hangover was inevitable. Jamie knew she couldn’t continue like this much longer. “I realized that I valued blacking out more than my friends and family,” she admits. “And that just seemed really fucked up.”
Last summer, Jamie worked on recovery. She refers to her three months in rehab as “tough love.” She suffered withdrawals and dealt with the underlying issues of her alcohol abuse. During two weeks of reflection and forgiveness, Jamie reached out to everyone she had ever hurt due to her drinking problems. She learned that two–thirds of everything you say when you’re drunk is a lie.
Jamie’s body also paid the toll for her drinking habits. Her enzyme levels had suffered greatly, making her liver that of a 55-year-old man. Jamie will need to get her liver checked after college and speculates that she’ll never be able to drink again.
Although she says waking up sober is “one of the best feelings in the world,” she’s still fighting temptation and faces withdrawals. However, things are easier when she thinks about her future. “I think about where I want to be in 5 years. I don’t want alcohol to deter from that.”
Unlike Jamie, College sophomore Hope Mackenzie never found alcohol appealing. She doesn’t want to rely on any sort of stimulus to have fun. “I have a conscious mantra in my head: ‘you’re gonna have a good time,’” she says. “And it’s normally pretty awesome.”
Hope has found a lot of support through Chi Omega. Although she worried joining a sorority would be awkward, more often than not her sisters’ comments range from “That’s really respectable,” or “Here are my keys, remind me later.” None of them pass any judgment on her choice to be sober, which often gets a raised eyebrow from strangers at parties. “You have to have a lot of confidence [to go to] a frat party [sober],” she admits.
Despite her decision to be sober now, Hope doesn’t necessarily believe she won’t always drink. It’s a choice she’ll make when she turns 21, or perhaps if she studies abroad. Even so, she doesn’t think she’ll ever drink to get drunk. Hope jokes, “I’ll just have to be very confident in myself and order a seltzer and call it a day.”
Rocky Diegmiller ended his sobriety on the night of his 21st birthday, but not for legal reasons.The first time the Engineering senior got drunk was on the stroke of midnight—Rocky remembers having a group of 80–90 people around him ready with shots.
“I just thought to myself, this was really surreal that this many people would come out to watch my first drink,” Rocky remembers. “But that really just meant that without drinking, [I’d] made...this many real friendships.”
Rocky doesn’t regret waiting until his 21st birthday to drink, but it wasn’t always easy. He left parties by himself and wasn’t ready for crowds of belligerent drunk people. Rocky ultimately rushed a pre-professional fraternity for fear of feeling alienated by Greek pledge events involving alcohol.
Now, Rocky is a frequent patron of Smoke’s. “I see it as, I was just late to the party and I guess that just makes me fashionable,” he jokes. “We’re the top party school after I started to drink.”
For some, it’s not about what alcohol could be, but what it has been.
College sophomore Kat McKay has a history of alcoholism in her extended family. For her, the decision to be sober was not a hard one to make. “It’s different to come home drunk to a family with a history of alcoholism,” she shares.
But Kat’s family history doesn’t define her, or her social life. “It’s not like I hang out with sober people and we sit in tie-dye t–shirts on a Friday night,” she jokes. Through Sigma Kappa and PennQuest, she’s found a community of people who enjoy her company any night of the week. Looking forward, she knows that drinking is not just a part of Penn’s culture. “It is representative of the socialization I’ll be in for the rest of my life,” she admits.
Drinking was a part of Mike’s* life until his sophomore year. The Engineering senior found that alcohol aggravated his anxiety. “Being drunk would make me nervous,” Mike says. “Because I was drunk, I wouldn’t be able to control my anxiety. One of my reactions [was] to throw up, and then throwing up [made] me [more] anxious.”
Without alcohol, Mike doesn’t have to be anxious about what he did last night. “The result of not drinking is I don’t do anything horribly embarrassing,” he laughs. He may want to leave Smoke’s earlier than others as the night gets rowdier, but he still has fun, especially with his pre–professional fraternity, Theta Tau. Mike would like to go back to drinking at some point, but for now he enjoys his sober lifestyle.
At parties, Amber* doesn’t need liquid courage to be the Queen Bey of the dance floor. “When Beyoncé comes on, I’m gonna be all over this one!” she announces.
Amber believes people lean on alcohol to make themselves feel more accepted, or socially relevant. But she thinks they’re forgetting something. “We were all kind of weird in high school, let’s be real,” Amber laughs. “People try to pretend they weren’t, and I’m like, I know who you were in high school!”
A member of both a pre-professional fraternity and student government, Amber has found Penn to be very accepting of her sobriety. Although she’s faced uncomfortable situations, she now laughs at her original reactions. “The first couple of BYOs I went to, I ended up paying for the alcohol because I didn’t feel like explaining to people I didn’t drink,” she says. Amber also remembers the time she lied about having too much work to go to a semi-formal; really, she didn’t want to tell her prospective date she was sober.
For Sarah*, an Engineering sophomore, alcohol has been limited to church wine. “Being raised Catholic made me know that I should treat my body well,” she says. “I always think about how it’s said that Jesus turned water into wine,” Sarah explains. “Wine is a drink, and drinks are made for us to enjoy, but not abuse.”
But abusing alcohol, or binge drinking, is the norm at Penn. Still, Sarah doesn’t regret signing up to live in a “culture of excess.” And she doesn’t judge those who partake in it. She has met many drinkers and nondrinkers alike in her dance troupe and pre–professional fraternity. “No one should judge people who drink,” Sarah points out, “because behind stumbling bodies, more often than not, live hardworking, passionate and caring students.”
Like many of the people interviewed, Sarah references Penn’s “work hard, play hard” mantra. But she doesn’t believe it means the same for everyone; “we all work and play in different ways.”
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the students.