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The Parent Program is here for you.

Parent Program Web site
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Professional Staff:
Nancy Sandhu
Patti Lux-Weber

Student Interns:
Nicole Daniels
Neil Jackson
Christine Theilacker

Parents: Partners in Changing the Drinking Culture

As a UW–Madison parent, you may have heard about the university’s response to student drinking when you attended SOAR, or you may recall receiving a letter urging you to talk with your student about alcohol before coming to Madison. By now, you may also have seen or read news stories about alcohol use and misuse.

The easy availability of alcohol and its excessive use are issues that college campuses across the nation are struggling with every day. UW–Madison is concerned about the negative consequences of high-risk drinking for our students and our university community.

As a campus, we devote significant resources to educate students about the personal, academic, and legal consequences of high-risk drinking. We offer hundreds of involvement opportunities that do not involve alcohol. We also hold students accountable for alcohol-related violations, encouraging them to re-evaluate the choices they are making.

We believe parents can play an important role in influencing their student’s choices when it comes to alcohol. In fact, national studies have shown that parents have a key influence on how often their students engage in risky behavior, including alcohol use.

The Parent Program recently contacted some campus experts to find out about campus initiatives and trends regarding alcohol and the important role parents can play in influencing their student’s choices.

“The fact is that student binge drinking remains the single biggest health problem for campus,” says Aaron Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning, and principal investigator of UW–Madison’s PACE Project to Reduce the Consequences of High-Risk Drinking.

UW–Madison’s research shows that these consequences may include disrupted sleep or studies; unplanned and unprotected sexual contact; sexual or physical violence; vandalism; or nights that end at the detoxification center.

“I see a major problem with alcohol abuse by students, particularly with dangerous levels of drinking,” says Ervin “Kipp” Cox, assistant dean of students for student assistance and judicial affairs. During the past semester, assistant deans met with 78 students who were either taken to a detoxification center or to a hospital for overdoses of alcohol.

Some elements of Madison’s long-standing drinking culture remain entrenched, with many bars located in the campus area that offer cheap drinks and the state of Wisconsin leading the nation in binge drinking every year. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks for men or four or more for women, in two hours.

There have been many positive changes in recent years, as the university has worked on crafting a consistent set of messages and expectations for its students, and has created a strong coalition of on- and off-campus partners to address alcohol issues.

Many of the statistical indicators that the university tracks seem to be trending in the right direction, Brower says. In particular, the number of students who “binge” more than once per week seems to be declining, as are those who experience multiple problems as a result of drinking. The number of those abstaining from alcohol altogether is increasing, as well.

So, what can parents do? We believe that by talking openly and directly with their students on a consistent basis, parents can play a critical role in curbing alcohol abuse and helping to change the culture of high-risk drinking on our campus.

Kay Reuter-Krohn, associate director of University Housing, urges parents to not underestimate their influence in discussing alcohol with students. “Most parents have more influence over their students than the university,” she says.

One way to begin the conversation is by asking your student about grades and involvement last semester. Did things turn out as well as expected? Were his or her goals achieved? What factors contributed to success or difficulties? What are his or her goals for the upcoming semester? What steps are necessary to achieve them?

“We notice that quite often alcohol abuse goes along with low grades,” Cox says. “Students who get sucked into the ‘study hard, party hard’ mentality may find themselves on academic probation or being dropped from enrollment.”

Other warning signs may be alcohol-related citations from the police and relationship or roommate problems.

Another way to approach the conversation is by encouraging your student to look at the big picture, proposes Sarah Van Orman, director of University Health Services. Spending four years on the UW–Madison campus is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a long-term investment for students and parents alike.

Van Orman encourages parents to talk with their students about how they are taking advantage of the unique opportunities that link learning in and out of the classroom. Discuss what they are learning in the classroom, and ask about the connections and friendships they are building. Students who are not forging relationships and seeking out these types of experiences may find it more difficult to find post-graduation employment or internships.

“Many students are focused on Wisconsin Experience activities, such as internships, research opportunities, or student organizations,” she says. “If a student is drinking excessively, it is going to be difficult for them to participate.”

Every week, there are hundreds of things to do on and off campus that do not involve alcohol. These opportunities are offered by numerous organizations, including the Wisconsin Union, the university’s more than 700 Registered Student Organizations, and the city of Madison’s vibrant arts and music scene. Ask your student how he or she is spending the weekend. Encourage him or her to explore the campus and Madison with friends.

UHS can assist a student’s evaluation of his or her own alcohol use, or help counsel a student when a friend or roommate’s use is becoming an issue. Parents can encourage students to visit University Health Services, or call 608-265-5600. Should a student be transported to detox, the university will contact parents and students to discuss the situation.

We encourage you to make these conversations an ongoing part of your communication with your student. For more ideas on how to talk to your student about alcohol, visit the PACE Program Web site.

More on the Effects of Drinking
Are you interested in an academic perspective about the effects of drinking in the body? Kevin Strang, a physiology faculty associate, frequently speaks during SOAR and Parents’ Weekend. An interview with Strang “Effects of Alcohol on the Human Body”, from the Big Ten Network interview show “Office Hours,” is posted online, along with his full lecture “Physiology of the World's Second-Most Popular Drug”.