“I’ve never seen that girl before. Isn’t it weird you still see people here you don’t recognize?” my friend Paige said last year as we lounged in the Grille.
“There’s a third of the campus that we never really see, because they don’t go out on weekends,” my friend Karima interjected.
We looked at her doubtfully as she explained herself. “Seriously, that’s when we do most of our socializing. People that don’t go out do different things on weekends, and we don’t know them.”
After that seemingly mundane conversation last year, I began to wonder what those who do not drink did on the weekend. Even though this was the first time at Grinnell I considered an alternative to my own weekend routine, I was sure that the sub-free lifestyle at Grinnell encompassed more than Not Your Average Weekend events or late night study sessions on East. I was just not familiar with the nuanced experiences and activities that lay beneath the surface of sub-free weekends. This year, I decided to find out. I spoke to a wide variety of sub-free students on campus. Their experiences may not encompass one singular definition of what it means to be substance free at Grinnell, but I hope they will at least give some first hand perspective.
Michael Korte ’15:
Mike has lived in Kershaw for two years.
“I was completely substance free last year, and I am ninety-five percent this year,” Mike tells me. When asked why started drinking some this year, Mike discusses the broader context. He takes me back a year ago, when he was a first-year, wide-eyed and eager to make friends. However, the parties at Grinnell impeded his success.
“If you go out and are not used to it, it is hard. Drunk people are stupid,” Mike says. “I don’t think anyone on this campus will deny that. I see people in class and they are smart, but then I see them on weekends and they are stupid.”
Mike explains that his distaste for drinking severely limited the breadth of his social circle.
“First year, everyone else was getting to know tons of people and I wasn’t. I think it’s still kinda true, that [drinking] is the main way you meet people on campus,” Mike says. “I went out at the start and at the end, but got really down and frustrated during the middle.”
Mike considered transferring because of the lack of sober weekend interaction, but he enjoyed the people he met in class, and he wanted to stay.
“I decided that five sevenths of the week with them is worth my time.”
After asking about his favorite party venues, Mike seems excited for the first to talk about an aspect of the culture at Grinnell: Frisbee Parties.
“There was no pressure to drink,” Mike explains. “They have always made the message very clear: ‘Let’s go get drunk, but only if you want to!’”
“One time last year,” Mike continues, “a non-Frisbee player was pressuring me, and it was actually one of my teammates that defended me.”
I asked if by the time he is an upperclassman he will act as a positive example to younger players, and Mike nodded vehemently.
“I will always make it clear if you don’t drink that is perfectly fine.”
Though Mike’s time with the Frisbee team is a blast, life in Kershaw and parties thrown by Not Your Average Weekend are sometimes a disappointment.
“People in Kershaw are on the more reserved side,” Mike acknowledges. “There are some people there who are
militantly anti-social. The SA doesn’t let us talk on the floor after eleven. We have to be strictly quiet. The others on the floor [those who want to be social] don’t deserve that.”
I have found that it’s especially important to foster floor community on substance free floors, since finding social outlets elsewhere, especially on weekends, often proves difficult. His dorm unfortunately falls into a negative stereotypes of sub-free culture, that those who do not drink are antisocial.
When I ask Mike about his experience with Not Your Average Weekend, the campus organized group that hosts sub-free weekend events, Mike initially dodges the question, only acknowledging that he has gone a couple of times.
“I am not seven years old. Some of the ideas they come up with seem a little young,” he eventually says. “People see it as immature and the last resort for the weekend, the bottom of the barrel.”
He says that the people who attend Not Your Average Weekend form a bit of a clique, excluding some who already feel excluded.
“In general on this campus there’s a problem of exclusivity,” Mike explains. “If you don’t find your clique quick, you’re kind of screwed.”
Despite these brief comments, Mike surprises me with his positivity throughout the interview, and ends by enlightening me on one of the benefits of being the minority in such a heavy substance use school.
“There is this idea [that] if your whole school is sub-free that substances are evil and drunk people are morally bad,” Mike says. “If I had gone to school on a dry campus, I would have picked up on that attitude. Grinnell has made me nonjudgmental of substance use.”
Mike laughs, “I might work for Anheuser Busch someday! When it comes down to it people are just people. There are positive lessons to extrapolate from all this.”
Sangwoo Lee ’15:
Sangwoo Lee ‘15 has also lived in Kershaw for two years. Sangwoo spots me in the grille for our interview before I see him, and waves feverishly.
“I want to live in a substance free dorm because I don’t drink or smoke, but I still want to be social!” Sangwoo exclaims.
Like Mike, Sangwoo also tried to hang out with his friends who drank on weekends at the beginning of his first year, but he also quickly found that there were limitations.
“It was hard to get along with them. Since I don’t drink, it’s kind of socially awkward to be there when they’re drinking. Being with drunk people, I was the one to take care of them. I always had that responsibility. I didn’t like that.”
Things changed after Sangwoo’s first semester at Grinnell. Sangwoo found himself going out less and less often.
Sangwoo’s dark brown eyes bares into my own as his tone becomes solemn.
“Because I didn’t have anything in common with my friends on the weekends, I kind of gave up,” he said. “I now watch movies and go to concerts alone on weekends. I can hardly find anyone to go with. They would all rather drink.”
Fortunately, Sangwoo knows of one person he can always call.
“On the weekends, I know I can call Mike. Mike and I are best friends in Kershaw,” Sangwoo says, his eyes sparkling and playful again.
The playfulness is still there when I ask how he avoids drinking at the parties he does attend.
“Sometimes I tell them I am allergic to alcohol,” he says with a grin.
“My friends feel like they are isolated from big cities,” he continues. “There is literally nothing to do. So they drink. Students have to find something to relieve the stress. Drinking is the only way to relieve the stress, they think.”
Sangwoo knows there is much more to do on weekends to relieve stress. He tells me that one his favorite thing to do on weekends is go to concerts, either in Bucksbaum or Gardner, but sometimes that’s not an option. He told me he is often at a loss of what to do. Lacking any other plans, he often ends up watching movies.
Sangwoo nods his head violently when I ask if he thinks Grinnell should have more to do on weekends.
“Yes we definitely need more events on weekends. There are tons of events, but people drink at all of them.”
Sangwoo would like to see more concerts offered at Bucksbaum and more movie nights.
I ask Sangwoo if he has ever attended a Not Your Average Weekend event, and he has no idea what I am referring to.
“I don’t know about this. What is the name of the group?” he implores.
Alex Anderson ’15 and Kenzie Doyle ’ 15:
Both Alex Anderson ‘15 and Kenzie Doyle ‘15 are similar to Mike and Sangwoo in that they live in the same sub-free dorm and spend time together on weekends. These two pairs differ though, because fortunately both Alex and Kenzie have found strong communities and not struggled as much to socialize on weekends in James.
“James is interesting because it is both sub-free and on South campus,” Kenzie says. “It takes a certain kind of person to live in South campus and be sub-free. It has a very specific style.”
Arguably, James as a dorm has more vitality than dorms on East campus, which may lead to a much stronger community. No matter the reason, both Kenzie and Alex gush about their friends in James.
“I lived in James this year and last year, and found a close group of friends. I live in the same floor as I did last year with three of the same people,” Kenzie says.
Kenzie acknowledges she was lucky in dodging having to navigate Grinnell’s drinking culture in search of meeting new people and making friends first year.
“It just happened to work out for me, it was really convenient I got placed in James.”
Kenzie tells me her weekends are for the most part “comfortable and entertaining.”
Alex, who also lives in James and hangs out with Kenzie and their larger friend group on weekends details their weekend shenanigans: “We dress up for Harris but never really go. Dressing up and taking pictures and walking around campus to see other people is the most fun.”
Their nights on weekends are anything but boring, and I press Alex to tell me some of the unique activities they do.
“Well, we do walk around campus drinking tea,” Alex recounts, catching himself and adding, “except I don’t drink tea, I usually drink apple cider. We also play with my pet rats, Remus and Sirius.”
Laughing at the Harry Potter reference, I ask Alex why he prefers this lifestyle. Alex does not hesitate in his answer.
“Real conversation happens. And we get to do things like watch Sherlock. We watch a lot of movies, which is a lot of fun, especially since I haven’t seen many movies before college. There are a lot of good movies out there.”
Alex acknowledges that this version of a weekend is not ideal for everyone at Grinnell.
“My friends and I are all introverted. It is a lot more fun to hang out with each other to go to a big party every weekend.”
Kenzie agrees, saying, “If you are fairly introverted you don’t need a lot of social interaction, so being sub-free is easier. But a lot of people drink here to be social, and it you were outgoing and need that amount of socializing, it [being sub-free] would be kind of hard.”
But Alex thinks that something more than socializing is at stake. “The dominant culture here seems to be to go out and get absolutely wasted and possibly hook up with someone,” Alex emphasizes. “It seems like a lot of people want to hook up but find they’re too socially awkward to do so sober. Why have sex with someone and pretend it never happened? If you want to hook up with someone, why do you have to drink so much to do it? It seems much more productive to go up and talk to someone sober.”
Grinnellians are aware that how much we drink, especially on weekends, is a tenet of what we proudly call our “culture.” We fool ourselves into keeping up with each other’s supposed drinking habits, creating the illusion that we drink more than we actually do. Even before coming here, most were aware that Grinnell is a “drinking” school, and came with certain expectations. The Class of 2015 took AlcoholEdu, which not only made drinking alcohol salient in our brains as we entered college, but engendered a preconception that if you go to Grinnell, you will drink. Where does that leave those who do not participate?
The experiences of those who are substance free are as diverse as those who use substances. They want to feel comfortable when they refuse a beer at a party, and they want opportunities to hang out with their friends without alcohol on weekends. The fact that a nuanced portrait of sub-free life is rarely depicted at Grinnell suggests that our campus dialogue on weekends, the social life, and culture in general should become more inclusive towards those who are sub-free.