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Columnist Sangitha Ayer cautions students about the slippery slope of Penn's social drinking culture. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Take a stroll across campus on any given Friday night and you will likely bear witness to alcohol-fueled scenes. You might accidentally step on a stray can of Natural Light or a red Solo cup. Maybe you’ll watch an intoxicated party-goer stumble over an unlodged Locust Walk brick. On any given day, you may witness a fresh-faced first-year get MERTed. Welcome to Penn, the land where Ivy League prestige meets rampant alcoholism.

Our drinking culture is nothing new; it is even ingrained into the University's long history. Before the 1970s, students would sing our fight song and raise a champagne toast to “dear old Penn” during homecoming football games. When alcohol was eventually banned from Franklin Field, a more lighthearted alternative emerged where students threw pieces of bread onto the field, a literal interpretation of making a “toast.” Despite its modern adaptation, the alcohol-related origins of this iconic tradition remain the same. Our fight song, named “Drink a Highball,” even references a popular type of cocktail. Talk about school spirit. 

Even today, we see alcohol seep its way into everyday student life. One of the most popular and sought-after classes at Penn is CBE 5560 or "The Biochemical Engineering of Wine," during which students learn about biochemical unit operations behind the production of wine and even engage in weekly wine tastings. 

Penn students are allowed to have fun. The origins behind toast throwing make for an amusing story, and a wine-tasting class does sound enjoyable. A more pressing concern arises, however, when these subtle elements of drinking cumulate into something larger. Binge drinking on campus has been normalized to an almost terrifying extent. Consuming alcohol three times a week, blacking out, and even having emergency services called seem to be staples of the Penn experience. 

Penn has attempted to cease the overconsumption of alcohol on campus. From providing substance abuse recovery resources through Wellness at Penn to implementing a medical amnesty policy, it seems like the University has done its due diligence. This problem, however, is unlikely to be solved by administrative action. It is the responsibility of Penn students to reform our University-wide culture. 

Unsurprisingly, binge drinking has damning repercussions. Each year, approximately 1,500 college students die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries. About 1 in 4 college students experience academic difficulties from drinking, including missing class or falling behind in schoolwork. Around 696,000 college students are assaulted by another student who was drinking, per year. 

These numbers, while unsightly, will not come as a shock to most. By the time they begin college, most students have been told time and time again that drinking in excess is bad. However, Penn’s drinking epidemic may be indicative of even bigger problems. It is both a cause and effect of many of the social issues that plague the University. 

On college campuses, alcohol has been cited as a major contributing factor to sexual assaults. In 2019, 25.9% of undergraduate women at Penn reported unwanted sexual contact since entering college. Possibly, it is the presence of alcohol that has worsened our alleged rape culture

Simultaneously, Penn’s alcoholism may also be an effect of some of the difficulties that students regularly encounter. Binge drinking can be caused by feelings of stress and is often utilized as an unhealthy way to manage negative emotions. Penn students are no strangers to mental health struggles, a common presence in high-stress institutions. The need to resort to alcohol rather than seeking mental health support may be indicative of the lack of proper resources on campus, an urgent issue that University administration still has yet to solve. 

Of course, Penn students’ poor drinking habits also go hand-in-hand with the University’s “work hard, play hard” culture and reputation as the “social Ivy”. The former phrase, a motto that is so deeply intertwined with University life, is a popular discouragement of pursuing a balanced lifestyle. It implies that regularly “playing hard,” which is oftentimes analogous to drinking, is necessary to achieve the full college experience. The latter phrase, “social Ivy,” is indicative of the prevalence of Greek life organizations. They are often embroiled in alcohol-related controversies — whether it’s forcing pledges to drink as part of hazing processes or serving as the center of Penn’s party scene. 

With that being said, my goal is not to drive all forms of liquor off campus. We are still a university, and, inevitably, students will continue to drink. That’s not a completely negative thing, either. Alcohol has its benefits, especially in situations where it can serve as a social lubricant and even help improve well-being

Unfortunately, the slope from social drinking to binge drinking is a slippery one. Alcohol has become an integral part of what it means to be a Penn student and is almost inseparable from our University-wide culture. For that to change, it is the responsibility of students to choose to reform our approach to alcohol consumption. Only then can we begin to recuperate from an almost 300-year-old hangover.

SANGITHA AIYER is a College sophomore from Singapore. Her email is