When SESP junior Neha Sobti attended a oNe Northwestern event earlier this quarter, her suggestions for improvements of the university’s alcohol safety policies caught ASG Operations Director Tommy Smithburg’s attention.
Weeks later, the student government has organized an ad-hoc Alcohol Safety Task Force, which they hope can make a difference in the way students choose to consume alcohol.
The issue of alcohol on campus has garnered more attention after two former students were arrested in December and January in connection with the June 2008 death of freshman Matthew Sunshine from alcohol poisoning. Northwestern recently opened a chapter of Circle of Trust on campus, which, unlike the ASG task force, focuses more on alcohol education than policy making.
“It’s an unexpected benefit from the tragedy that students are more aware of these issues, are more interested in these issues and are actually taking action,” said Health Education Director Michele Morales, who has been in contact with members of the task force.
But according to Smithburg, the subject of alcohol safety had been on the agenda for a while. In late 2007, ASG presented a report to the administration, but no action was subsequently taken.
“They had all these ‘next steps’ presented in the report, but there was never any responsible party for executing any of those next steps,” he said. “So it was like ‘here’s a great report,’ and they just dropped it on the table.”
The current task force plans on meeting sometime within the next week, but its participants have hope that it will take more action than previous groups that have tackled the issue.
“We haven’t had our first meeting yet, but I see this as a task force to follow through and really get things done,” said ASG External Relations Chairman Samir Pendse.
For Morales, the task force’s strength lies in the fact that it is a student-led effort.
“A peer-to-peer intervention can be so much more powerful than an intervention coming from staff,” she said. “That’s not to say there isn’t a place for experts, but I think they really complement each other.”
The task force, although spearheaded by ASG, includes members of the off-campus community, the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association, as well as the Residence Hall Association and Residential College Board.
According to Sobti, students have a better insight than university officials on the topic of college drinking.
“I definitely feel that there’s a gap between the students and the administration,” the SESP junior said. “The administration, I think, doesn’t really understand why people are drinking on campus, and that’s really where the student voice comes in. Only someone who goes to parties and drinks will know why they’re going to parties and drinking and doing other activities. “
The task force is considering various programs that will give students alternatives to drinking on weekend nights, including evening shuttles into Chicago, a student-organized emergency medical service and the creation of a new student center.
“There’s no one fix-all,” Smithburg said. “Late-night programs aren’t going to fix it by itself. If we can come up with a lot of different solutions […] we might be able to really have an impact.”
But Smithburg added that the task force wasn’t lobbying for specific programs.
“We’re not coming into this saying we want an amnesty policy, we’re not coming into this saying we want a new student center,” he said. “Our only goal is to improve alcohol safety, and we’ll do that with whatever university programs and policies we need.”
However, certain recently implemented programs already considered alcohol safety.
“When we pushed for the Chicago shuttle, definitely one of the points we were trying to make is that it was an alternative to do other constructive things,” Pendse said. Alcohol safety “wasn’t at the back of my mind, that was at the front of my mind.”
Smithburg said that the project would require time before making a significant impact on the college drinking culture.
“This isn’t a one-quarter thing, this is going to take two or three years. We’re probably not going to see this by the time I graduate,” the Weinberg junior said. “But at least there is something in place, there is a group in place, people that are talking about it and whose goal is to make it happen.”