Drinking dilemmas

Last year, the Record published numerous articles and op-eds, as well as an editorial, discussing the administration’s review of  the entry system, junior advisors (JAs) and alcohol. This year, several first-years have already found their way to the hospital, leaving some to question the role of the entry system in the campus drinking culture.  Sometimes, it seems as if people – whether students, members of the administration,  those involved in certain College organizations – want to blame the JAs for the alcohol issues that some say plague the Class of 2015 and first-year classes of the past. In reality, though, people need to stop pointing fingers at the JAs for these issues. People instead need to realize that, without JAs, the consequences of campus drinking would be much worse.

It seems that critics assume that JAs are the only providers of alcohol to first-years, but first-years will find alcohol regardless of whether or not their JAs buy it for them. According to national statistics, the average first-year boy consumes 7.39 drinks every week and the average first-year girl consumes 3.86. These numbers are from colleges that don’t have JAs.

Fortunately, rumors about the dissolution of the entry system have all but dried up. However, critics of the system continue to advocate changing the position of JA in an attempt to curb their role in the alcohol culture of the entry. This idea is misguided. First-year drinking isn’t more of a problem here than it is anywhere else. Junior advisors are not the source of the drinking problem; in turn, changing their role will not discourage drinking among first-years. What JAs do provide is the help first-years need when they do drink too much.

Without JAs, there would be no one to take care of sick frosh. In an ideal world, everyone would have good friends who could be relied upon to stay up all night and hold their hair as they puked in the toilet. But in the real world, that is not always the case. I can remember multiple times last year when lives could have been at stake in my entry and in those around mine if the JAs had not been there to take care of people. Additionally, as young adults, we don’t always know when someone should go to the hospital. JAs have been trained to know this. But if administrators threaten them with significant role-changes, JAs might be more inclined to fix problems on their own, rather than making the difficult decision to seek professional medical help.

The bigger problem with the critics’ view of the entry system is that it only considers those times when things go wrong in an entry, because those are the situations that they hear about. Six of your frosh puked last weekend? People hear about it. Your frosh went to the hospital? People hear about it. Your frosh was the one setting off the fire alarm because he was smoking at three in the morning? People hear about it. But they don’t hear about all the great things that JAs do. There are many other problems that college students have that don’t involve alcohol, and sometimes JAs are the only people first-years feel comfortable turning to. Difficult issues like eating disorders and depression can be addressed by JAs, who have more college and real-life experience than the students they are advising. If this essential role of the JA were changed, frosh might not have anywhere to turn and may keep their issues to themselves.

And besides the dangerous issues – what about just someone to turn to when you’ve had a bad day? For me, it is my JAs who have had the biggest impact on my Williams career so far. I’m not sure that I would love the College like I do without them. The number of hours I spent seeking advice from them on life, friends, school and everything else is what I will take away from my first year here. I bet that if almost any student really thinks about it, he or she will come to a similar conclusion.

It makes sense if administrators want to change the entry system to make drinkers safer and non-drinkers more comfortable. Personally, however, I worry that making substantial changes would risk taking away that which makes JAs unique and effective. I remember during my tour of the College that JAs were described as a mixture of a sibling, a crush and a parent all at the same time. If this quintessential role of the JAs were to change – for example, into the more formal role of a residential advisor, who would be a paid employee of the college – the entry system’s core purpose would change. Can we really have an entry system without JAs? Without the entry system, what sets us apart from every other small liberal arts school? If you take the entry system out of the College, you destroy a quintessential part of the place that we all love.

There are so many more benefits of the entry system than these disadvantages that detractors continue to focus on. If they – along with everyone else who criticizes the system – took a step back, they’d see this fact and start praising the system’s many successes. I realize that the entry system at its most basic level is safe, but the entry is not about a unit of rooms in a dorm. It is about the relationships you build with those people who become your family here.  If we force JAs to start looking for entry issues – like punishing people for alcohol as opposed to helping them when they have consumed too much of it – instead of allowing them to solve them, we take away a large part of that family.  What is Williams really without that family?


Ali Piltch ’14 is from Bryn Mawr, Penn. She lives in Thompson.

Comments (2)

  1. Anybody over 21 who buys alcohol for someone under 21 should be arrested. When I was in school my JA’s did nothing for me. They had their favorites and shared their pot with them. I doubt anything’s changed.

  2. The more things change, the more they remain the same. I was in the first class of fresh”men” women that Williams admitted in September 1971. I was 17. My two Sage suite mates and I shared our first beer at the meeting arranged by our JA’s to discuss “parietals”. (That was the first and last time I’ve ever heard that word.) Our JA’s (who were seniors because there were not enough female juniors to provide us with JAs) provided the beer. The college provided a keg at our first “mixer” and served wine at guest meals on Thursdays. Mid way through my time at Williams, the drinking age was lowered to 18 on the theory that if you could have a machine gun and die in Viet Nam, surely you could have a beer.

    I’ve now raised two sons–both now in their 20’s. Drinking was a much bigger issue during their high school days than in mine (but, I was/am a nerd). I’m clearly more than a little out of the loop of daily Williams College student life, but after reading this, I have to agree that JAs need to be trained to deal with and recognize dangerous alcohol use and students need to feel safe to turn to JAs with problems, including those involving alcohol/drug use and abuse. I’m sure first year students feel that they have heard it “all” before vis-a-vis the use of controlled substances, including alcohol, but they can benefit by hearing it yet again—especially from a near peer, like a JA. (Our JAs moved out to a house in Vermont soon after the school year started.) Given the experience of the other commenter and our’s, clearly, JA performance needs to be monitored and evaluated, but done right, I think it’s an effective peer counseling system.

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