Substance-Free Housing: Health, Safety, and Respect

When I am walking alone at night, my hands clenched in fists in my pockets and head always looking over my shoulder, I cannot help but feel a great sense of relief when I step into the my dorm. Here, I know I am safe -- I know I am home.
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My first week at the University of Michigan, I dabbled in the party scene for two nights. The first night I waited for an hour to get into a party -- where I was the only sober person -- only to leave later after being grabbed at by strangers. The second night I spent lost and terrified finding my way back to my dorm in the pouring rain. (Side note: to the girl who saw me scared and weeping and shared her umbrella while we walked home, I am eternally grateful.) Needless to say, my party days ended there.

I quickly realized that my dorm was where I could meet other people like me, people who were more interested in board games and movie nights than jungle juice and wild parties. I realized I would much rather form memories in a safe, open and comfortable space than at a whiskey-dripped frat house. This is why I chose substance-free housing. This is what we preach to new students coming into substance-free housing, that you can have a good time without drinking, because we recognize that not everyone wants to drink in college. We also preach that you should not drink because it is against the rules, illegal if you're under 21, and unhealthy.

These points are all important because all college students should be able to think of their dorm as a home away from home, a place where they can be free of the distractions and dangers that often arise from underage drinking. However, midway through my first semester of college, substance-free housing became even more of a safe haven for me when I learned that one of my friends had been sexually assaulted. After learning of the trauma she experienced, I was consumed by fright and grief. I was also angry that this experience did not seem to take a toll on or faze the minds of any of my other friends. They said they were upset for a few days and then moved on. They clearly did not realize that this could happen to any of us. You so often hear that one in three women will be sexually assaulted during her college years, but you still never think it will happen to someone close to you. When it does, the story suddenly turns from a statistic to a devastating realization that you are a woman in college and you are not safe.

I stayed in my room for a few nights, thinking that I would never leave. I wrapped myself up in my U of M blanket and did nothing but sob, sleep, and study. It wasn't until my dedicated friends dragged me out into the hall to play games, watch movies, and study together, that I was reminded that my dorm was a safe place and my friends were there to help me. This is not to wrongfully say that all assaults happen when substances are involved, but the fact that I would not have to encounter people in my hall who had lost control because of substances made me feel exponentially safer.

I realized that while being healthy and safe are crucial things to talk to the incoming students about, we should be focusing on those who voluntarily chose substance-free housing. What about those recent survivors of sexual assault involving substances who are looking for a safe place to recover? What about survivors of domestic or child abuse due to an alcoholic family member? What about those who have families torn apart because of substances? What about those students who have lost someone to overdosing or violence due to substance abuse?

These are hardly extreme scenarios. The above situations can happen to anyone, and while the damage caused by them cannot always be seen on a person's face, the sanctuary presented by substance-free dorms is not to be taken lightly. Alcohol, drugs and people who are under the influence might be triggering to those who have been negatively affected by substance use. That is, they might experience anxiety, stress, flashbacks, discomfort or distress in these situations. I have a peer who remains sober because she has experienced violence in her home caused by alcohol abuse. She says how easy it would be to temporarily drown her sorrows in cheap beer and vodka, but she refuses to allow alcohol to cause problems here as it does back home. In addition, students may have religious reasons for choosing substance-free housing. These students would probably appreciate not being surrounded by others who are under the influence of alcohol. They have chosen to live in a place where they believe people will share and ultimately respect their values.

A student from Brown University claims that substance-free housing fails to prepare students for the real world in which they will be exposed to uncomfortable situations. I would argue that while you cannot choose your neighbors in the post college world, you can choose to ignore them. In dorms, however, you are required to live in extremely close proximity with many people you do not know. Students will most likely live in a place where all the residents share common interests, goals, or values if they are given that option. Pre-medical students may choose a science-focused community; people involved in Greek Life are "matched" into sororities and fraternities that sync with their personalities, and artsy people like to stick with artsy people. If a student chooses substance-free housing for any of the aforementioned reasons, they are expecting to be surrounded by people who also do not care to partake in substance use in the dorms. In order to foster an atmosphere of learning, growth and community togetherness, we, students and educators alike, have to be cognizant of other people's experiences and identities.

The point of this article is not to shame those who drink. Instead, this is to serve as a reminder that we should take the necessary measures to respect the space and feelings of those who have been directly impacted by drinking in their lives. There are designated places where drinking is supported if that's your cup of Long Island Iced Tea, but the substance-free housing that you opted to live in is not one of them. When you choose to abide by substance-free standards, you are not only agreeing to be responsible, but to be respectful and mindful of how your actions affect others as well.

When I am walking alone at night, my hands clenched in fists in my pockets and head always looking over my shoulder, making sure to cross the street if someone is walking towards me, I cannot help but feel a great sense of relief when I step into the my dorm. Here, I know I am safe -- I know I am home.

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