Williams After Dark sheds light on alcohol-free culture

This semester, an institutionalized attempt to foster an alcohol-free social subculture has arrived in the form of Williams After Dark, a weekly Friday-night program hosted by different student groups who apply for funding to facilitate alcohol-free social events. A committee first met last May to explore the possibility of substance-free housing on campus. According to College Chaplain Rick Spalding, the committee has not yet reconvened this year or drawn up any further plans.

The first Williams After Dark event was a bingo night on Sept. 11. Last Friday, Currier Neighborhood sponsored a movie night in Bronfman auditorium.

Currier, Wood and Spencer Neighborhoods, as well as the Office of Campus Life, will be responsible for coordinating three Williams After Dark events each throughout the year. Events must occur on campus between 9 p.m. and midnight, accommodate 25 to 75 people, be open to all students and, of course, remain alcohol-free.

According to College Council (CC) Co-President Mike Tcheyan ’10, the Williams After Dark initiative was born of students’ interest to provide events that are alcohol-free. Tcheyan cites that student interest as pivotal: “That’s a major point behind it,” he said.

Joya Sonnenfeldt ’10, president of Spencer, drafted the proposal for Williams After Dark last spring and also spoke to the student push for such programming. “I think a lot of other students have been frustrated by how hard it is to advertise non-alcohol events,” Sonnenfeldt said. “Williams After Dark ideally is a program every week for students to make their dream a reality.”

Tim Leonard, Campus Life student activities coordinator, also emphasized that the programming has its roots in support from students and the administration. “There has always been a murmur about a non-alcoholic social scene at Williams,” Leonard said. According to Leonard, Campus Life’s role in the program is “multi-tiered.” Campus Life staff will be responsible for securing a host organization for each Williams After Dark event and for managing the budget with the CC treasurer.

Though the neighborhoods are now largely responsible for funding and planning the Williams After Dark events, Sonnenfeldt explained that she hopes the program will eventually be driven more by student groups and funded mostly by a special endowment run by CC.

According to Sonnenfeldt, Williams After Dark provides not only an alcohol-free social option for students but also a means for student groups to effectively advertise and execute their on-campus events and activities.

Tcheyan also said the program allows subsets of the student body to open up to the larger campus community. “We have many non-drinkers and also athletes, actors and musicians who have practices on Saturdays,” said Tcheyan. “Hopefully [Williams After Dark] is an initiative that will catch on, and there will be more non-alcohol events in the Williams social life.”

Though Williams After Dark events have enjoyed reasonable attendance so far, whether they will have an effect on alcohol-free culture at the College depends largely on student reactions. First-years in particular may represent a large target-audience for the programming. Indeed, of the roughly 50 students who attended last Friday’s movie night, first-years made up the majority.

Spalding spoke about his personal experience with some first-years who are unfamiliar with alcohol as a social apparatus. “Some students feel that alcohol is a wedge rather than an enabler,” he said. Spalding cited meetings with a fair share of students whose particular religious background excluded alcohol from their culture and said that these students often have to adjust to the presence of drinking on campus. “Their first experience is disorientation,” Spalding said. And for some students, Spalding explained, the new exposure to alcohol brings a sense of exclusion alongside the puzzlement.

Alcohol-free culture on campus

During his college search, Will Slack ’11 sought a liberal arts college where drinking was not the most prominent social activity for most students. “I quickly discovered that such a college doesn’t exist,” said Slack, “but I still wanted a school where drinking wasn’t the only activity.” However, the student body’s experience with alcohol hardly seems uniform, especially among students who choose not to drink.

First-year Pedro Roque ’13, who chooses not to drink, thinks that while Williams After Dark is “great for the social aspect,” the program will not encourage an alcohol-free culture on campus, he said. “You don’t have to drink there, you can drink anywhere else,” Roque said.

Roque went on to say that Williams After Dark events would attract other students who choose not to drink, but that this fact alone would not ensure that everyone at the event would be sober. “If there’s a non-alcoholic event, there’s pre-gaming,” Roque said. “It’s your decision to make the event a sober event.”

Like Slack, Caleb Miaw ’11 sees the existence of a drinking culture as inevitable, though he also believes a non-drinking social scene definitely exists at the College. “It really depends who you hang out with and whether that group is dominated by alcohol,” Miaw said.

Holly Dwyer ’12 said that when given the option to attend the typical party where alcohol is prevalent, she would “rather be having quiet conversations and getting to know people.” Dwyer cited her group of friends as supplanting the social system those parties might provide. “I definitely needed that stability, a place that I can know what to expect and be comfortable,” she said.

Alcohol-free culture on campus remains difficult both to define and trace because many students who do not drink feel differently about their decision over the trajectory of their Williams career. Miaw articulated how his perspective on drinking has changed throughout college. “The first couple of days [at the College], I made it pretty clear that I didn’t drink,” Miaw said. He described how in his first year, he attended events that served alcohol, but mostly just to feel included. “Now I feel that I don’t have to,” he said.