It’s what you’d expect from the university named Playboy’s top party school in 2014. A makeshift rig of colored lights. Sugary sweet, barely–tastes–like–alcohol jungle juice pouring from a Gatorade cooler. A song blaring from buzzy speakers with the bass cranked all the way up (probably “No Hands” by Waka Flocka Flame, “Mr. Brightside,” or that remix of “Heads Will Roll”). A booze–fueled, nearly wasted mass of bodies, jumping in unison, letting go of their inhibitions to the tune of a Friday night frat party.
Jake Federman (C ‘25) is right there in the mix, but he hasn’t had a thing to drink.
“I personally don’t need to have alcohol in me in order to have fun—partying alone is enough,” says Jake. Though he knew drinking was a large part of fraternity culture, it was never something that appealed to him. He joined his frat to make friends and meet people from backgrounds other than his, even if he knew that’d come with a heavy culture of drinking. He’s never had a drip of alcohol, and he never intends to.
With the rise of trends like sober TikTok, mocktail bars, and dry raves, it’s clear young people are steering away from the idealization of alcohol. It feels increasingly common to come across students who’ve made a conscious decision not to drink, smoke, or do drugs. Even for adults in their 30s and beyond, more casual embraces of sobriety are becoming commonplace, to the point that one could even call it “fashionable” to be sober.
Still, being sober in college, particularly as someone that regularly goes to parties, comes with challenges.
At Penn, partying feels so intertwined with drinking and doing drugs that they’re often inseparable from one another. It begs the question: What’s the point of going out if you’re not getting a little tipsy? But plenty of Penn’s sober brothers and sisters are out there in the thick of it—they’re proof that it doesn’t take intoxication to be social at the “social Ivy.”
Jake fits the picture of your average frat guy. He’s tall, laid–back, athletic—a New York transplant who fits naturally into the social culture of Penn. So when he walked into parties at New Student Orientation (NSO) last August, refusing every beer and red Solo cup offered to him by upperclassmen, people were taken aback. “But I never felt pressured to drink,” says Jake.
Coming into Penn, Jake knew he’d be surrounded by alcohol, but his friends and even random partygoers were understanding of his choice to be sober. “If you make it through NSO, that’s the hardest part,” he says.
By September, Jake felt that he’d mastered the art of partying sans booze—and he loved it. So much so that he started “dirty rushing” frats to fully integrate into the Penn Greek life scene.
Even though he hit it off with most of the brothers he met, almost no frats gave Jake a bid—even one whose living room he cleaned the morning after a party. “At a certain point I think they just dropped me because I wasn’t drinking with everyone else,” he says.
Only one frat invited Jake to pledge, and they were accommodating of his sobriety throughout the process. When they gave him his bid, he was greeted by one of the brothers at his door in the Quad. “He was like, ‘We usually greet new brothers with a beer, but since you don’t drink, I brought you this,’” says Jake, and then the brother handed him a can of Coke.
“It made me feel welcome for who I was,” he adds.
Like Jake, Lauren Schneider (C ‘22) rarely felt out of place in her social circles, although that might’ve been because “most of the time people would forget—even people I was friends with for four years would forget—that I didn't drink.”
It’s an easy mistake to make. During her first year, Lauren’s had a more packed social calendar than most of her drinking peers. “Freshman year, [I went out] as often as I could. That was my priority,” she explains. “I’d probably go out, like, three, four times a week. There were times when I’d be like, ‘Kweder on Tuesday, Sink or Swim Wednesday, sorority stuff Thursday, Friday, Saturday.’” And she’s never been drunk or buzzed—although she’s had a drink and done a round of green tea shots with friends before.
Then again, not drinking or smoking probably helped Lauren, a Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) sister, from getting totally burnt out. She could go to bed at 2 a.m. and wake up at 9 a.m., tired but hangover–free. And when out with her friends, “I could go longer than any of them. When I was on the dance floor, I was out,” she says.
For Lauren, being sober wasn’t a weighty choice—neither of her parents drank, she never went out in high school, and she just doesn’t see the appeal of losing control of her mental or physical faculties. None of this detracted from Lauren’s boundless energy: “I just love to dance and talk to people!”
But not everybody is like Jake and Lauren, especially when it comes to how immersed they are in their respective scenes. “I don’t think I met more than one other person that went out like I did and was sober,” Lauren says. Jake feels the same way, that he “might be the only sober attendee at a party. And that’s awkward, but it’s still fun.”
Of course, there’s a reason most people drink at parties. “Frat parties aren’t all that fun if you’re sober,” says Cheryl Chang (C ‘24). When Cheryl first came to Penn, she had every intention of diving into things headfirst. She’d always romanticized the college parties she’d seen on TV, so it made sense to join a sorority—Zeta Tau Alpha—and drink casually with friends, even if pandemic restrictions meant she wasn’t going to frat parties her first year. But one bad experience led her to swear off alcohol entirely.
“My vomit was pink. Neon, bright–ass pink,” says Cheryl. It started as a night binge drinking with her then–sorority sisters. What could go wrong with letting loose a little? A few too many shots and snacking on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was a recipe for severe nausea that ended in a Barbie–colored hue. And ever since, Cheryl has lost her taste for alcohol.
The following fall, Cheryl went to frat parties with her friends but didn’t drink, and soon found that they didn’t quite live up to the hype.
“It was just a lot of sweaty bodies touching yours in a crowded room,” she says. While the people around her could get into the music and feel relaxed after a few drinks, Cheryl, completely sober, couldn’t stop thinking about the strangers’ sweat staining her top or people stepping on her toes. By the end of her sophomore fall, Cheryl had sworn off of Penn parties and dropped out of her sorority, now opting for nights in with a smaller group of friends.
“If you gave me a plethora of options to do for fun, going to a frat party would not be at the top of my list,” says Anthony Hu (C ‘24). As someone who chooses not to drink, the sticky, structurally questionable basements of frat houses aren’t where he wants to spend his weekends.
Anthony initially opted into the time–honored rituals of one’s first year at college: roving around in packs from frat party to frat party, meeting fellow first years who’d forget his face in the morning, and going to parties along the Schuylkill where “there wasn’t much alcohol, but people were acting drunk anyway.” But Anthony also “took a lot of passes.” When he found that bailing on going out wasn’t hurting his social life, it took away the pressure to party when it wasn’t on his own terms.
Though he still hangs out with people who drink socially, Anthony gravitates more toward close–knit house gatherings. “At a house party, you basically know everyone, or if you don’t know everyone, you know someone who knows someone,” says Anthony. It’s more casual, there are more familiar faces, and there’s more control.
And sometimes, it does get out of control. “There’s no boundaries,” says Adrian Altieri (C ‘23). Though he’s tried alcohol, he doesn’t like it, doesn’t feel that he needs it to have fun, and has chosen to stay sober. Meanwhile, his roommates drink on weeknights like it’s a part of their daily routine. “It’s a way to uncouple themselves from Penn, which academically is so competitive, and almost cutthroat,” he says.
While he understands the urge to step away from Penn’s stressful environment, Adrian has seen some of the closest people in his life become nearly dependent on getting drunk or high to relax. “It seems a little excessive,” he says.
Lots of Penn students will admit themselves that drinking heavily on weekends is a coping mechanism used to decompress from a rough week. “In the Penn community, it's very easy for those types of anxieties to be amplified,” says Jessica Corrar, director of operations at the Philadelphia Collegiate Recovery Haven, or PCR Haven. Just a few blocks from Penn’s campus, Corrar runs the residential sober living program with Gemma Lund Mears to offer support for young adults in the Philadelphia area, including their fair share of Penn students, who want to get sober.
Lund Mears, who’s been sober since she was 18 years old, notes the cultural tendency to use any and every occasion as an opportunity to drink beyond what would be considered normal or healthy. “[Drinking] is what we do at weddings, at funerals, at sports games—at every darn thing we pop open a beverage of some kind,” she says, and college parties are one of the best excuses to bring out the booze.
As the “sober brother,” Jake often finds himself intervening at his frat’s parties. According to University policy, social events held by student groups that serve alcohol are required to register ahead of time and have designated sober attendees that can serve as first responders if something goes wrong. Although other members of his frat rotate the responsibility, Jake’s sobriety means that he often takes on a de facto caregiver role.
“I honestly do feel responsible to make sure that no one does anything so beyond stupid that someone gets hurt,” says Jake. Usually, there aren’t many instances where he has to intervene, but there are always two or three other designated sober brothers at the party helping to de–escalate when things get out of hand. Occasionally, they’ll cut someone off if they’ve become too “messed up” and encourage them to drink water.
But that responsibility can also grow into a burden. “It was honestly a lot of parenting,” says Cheryl. When she used to go to parties as the sober friend, it was a constant worry of making sure everyone was okay and got home safe.
“My friends didn’t bring me there to be the parent,” says Cheryl, “but that’s obviously just kind of the role of the sober friend.”
Alcohol isn't the only substance at play—harder drugs are also a fixture at Penn parties. As a result, the choice to be sober at Penn depends as much on financial considerations as it does on personal choice.
Adrian lives in a house with members of the sailing team, so he’s observed the feedback loop between money and illicit substances firsthand. Some students who come from wealthier backgrounds were already exposed to hard drugs in high school, and the more disposable income you have in college, the more you can spend on those same drugs.
And yes, when talking about hard drugs at Penn, that usually means cocaine.
“Growing up, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so scandalous.’ And then you get there, and it’s like: coke pregames! And I’m like, ‘Whoa,’” says Lauren, “it’s crazy how much money is going toward that kind of stuff.”
Everything from replacement Puff Bars, to Adderall for last–minute cramming, to bar–hopping on a Friday night, is another expense for an already cash–strapped student.
“If you’re someone who has to balance academics with work and other shit on your plate, you might not actually have the time to go partying and drinking with friends and then recover from the hangover,” says Cheryl, “because that shit takes time.” It’s time—and for that matter, money—that some students don’t have to throw around.
Not to mention, the sense of obligation to go out every weekend, pack your schedule, and spend your money eventually fades for sober students, just like it does for most people at Penn.
Even Lauren—the girl with the five–night–a–week social calendar—found that frat parties were starting to lose their luster once she became an upperclassman. “As you get older, everyone gets younger,” she laments.
Since she wasn’t seeing her friends on the dance floor anymore, Lauren started going to Smokes’ more often; it was the best way to run into people without having to make plans. As she distanced herself from nights spent in frat basements, Lauren started forming other habits in place of partying. Senior year, she went to Pottruck every day, plus SoulCyle in Center City once a week. She spent more time with her friends in off–campus apartments. She “started to value other things.”
At the same time, the interactions Lauren had grown accustomed to at frat parties—with their familiar drunken cadence—began to feel more and more superficial. She says, “I was tired of people maybe not remembering me, or I didn’t know if they remembered me, or I felt like I was building some sort of relationship with somebody and they didn’t even know.”
It’s not like Lauren has undergone a radical personality shift; she still loves to dance and talk to people. “Being around that energy” is the reason she joined SDT in the first place. It's just that, like drinking or doing drugs, party culture can be something that you grow out of, rather than something you do or don’t.
“More and more, there’s this normalization of being a sober young person, that it’s not crazy, and that it doesn’t mean you have to go hang out in church basements for the rest of your life and never have fun,” says PCR Haven’s Lund Mears. Many colleges and universities, including Penn, are starting to pick up on this sentiment: an increased demand for organized social spaces that aren’t centered around drinking.
In a statement to Street, Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives Mark Elias detailed an upcoming partnership between Wellness at Penn and University Life that’ll focus on hosting “substance–free, late–night programming” on campus this fall. This dovetails with the launch of the new SUPER (Substance Use, Prevention, Education, and Recovery) program, a wellness initiative focusing on students who are actively in recovery or trying to get sober.
Corrar thinks this is a marked improvement over traditional zero–tolerance policies for alcohol in colleges. “If a student is reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, I might have an issue,’ or, ‘I need help,’ that could mean they’re risking their college career,” she says. “Sometimes that can be a real deterrent, because there isn’t a clear place to go that doesn’t feel like it’s going to be punitive.”
It remains to be seen whether the SUPER program and other new initiatives will offer a viable alternative to Penn’s alcohol–centric party culture. Regardless, they represent a step toward a more sober–inclusive social scene for students who want it.
That said, Jake is certainly proof that sober students can still thrive in a traditional party environment, choosing frat basement over church basement without sacrificing his sobriety. Still, he struggles to understand the reliance on alcohol that feels so prevalent among his peers.
“It’s strange to me that people feel the need to drink in order to have fun,” says Jake. He gets drunk on the party, the people, the energy of coming together at the end of the week in the collective catharsis of the dance floor.
“Jumping up and down, seeing my friends, seeing people I met all around campus in different spots—it’s really fun, despite not having any substances in me,” says Jake. And when the night’s over, without the looming threat of a hangover, he’ll be ready to do it all over again at the next party.