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September 6, 2013

Schools try new strategies to battle college drinking

(Continued)

The cozy first floor of the modular house was jammed with undergraduates, at least 100 at any one time, dramatically upping the indoor temperature from the crisp night outside, where a dozen smokers chose to hang out. Pop and house music blared.

A feisty young woman guarded the door and interrogated every person who tried to enter. She let in close friends, sorta-friends, fellow seniors and younger students who were in a religious retreat group one of her roommates led.

"We decided to go big," explained another one of the hostesses, wearing a black spaghetti-strap top with her cellphone tucked into her cleavage.

In one corner, seniors sipped Natty Light and talked about what they wanted to do before graduation. A couple of women tried to get everyone dancing. One guy alternated swigs of orange soda and vodka. A communal bottle of Wild Turkey made its way through the horde.

Most of the crowd was binge drinking but mostly on light beer and over hours. They would go to sleep - not pass out - get up the next morning and go about working and studying. But a couple of guys appeared bombed, including a stumbling senior who gave a lengthy interview to a reporter, then emailed the next afternoon. "I was speaking with you last night, and I have no recollection of it whatsoever," he wrote.

One woman didn't drink at all. She never does, as alcohol has hurt her family.

This party could be on any campus. On that Friday night in April, it was at Boston College, a Jesuit school that allows of-age seniors to host parties on Friday and Saturday nights in their on-campus modular houses (known as "The Mods"), which went up in the '70s as temporary housing for baby boomers.

The seniors must register parties and create a plan for what kind of alcohol they will serve, along with nonalcoholic beverages and food. Hosts must agree not to serve underage students, but younger students often sneak in, several students said. And it's not as if the dorms are lacking alcohol, despite strict rules against it.

Like many schools, Boston College has upped the alcohol education it offers students, along with limiting access to alcohol, focusing attention on students' making healthy decisions, offering alcohol-free events and packing students' schedules.

"If they're under 21, it's always a risky choice to make, because there are consequences. But if that's a choice they are going to make, we want to give them some tools for doing it safely," said Robyn Priest, associate director of BC's office of health promotion.

Even if students find alcohol ed tedious or boring, the message usually sticks. And those messages are reiterated over time.

Outside the Mods that Friday night, Chestnut Hill swarmed with students searching for alcohol or stumbling home from having had too much. Cabs hovered near the entrance. The sound of women shouting "woooooo!" floated from an open dorm window.

A pack of guys poured out of one of the sophomore halls. One was frantically texting, as his friend impatiently asked: "Do you know of a party?" Another clarified: "Do you know of even a hint of a party?"

Inside Mod 15A, the party continued.

"See how it's really hot and super crowded? That's a Mod party," said a senior in jeans and a T-shirt. And this crowd is nothing, he explained, yelling and cracking open a beer. The previous weekend another group of women hosted a party in their Mod that attracted so many people, who danced so hard, that the floor sagged and needed repair.

These students said they don't think their drinking is any heavier or lighter than that at other colleges. Students drink - sometimes too much - but "It's work hard, play hard," said a 22-year-old senior. "I've had marathon weeks with seven nights straight, and I've had weeks where I drink one night."

Just after 1 a.m., the music cut out. "Sorry, guys," one of the hosts yelled, "party is over."

Some students chug the rest of their drinks; others take them for the walk home. There's a debate over whether they could get to the local dive bar before last call. Many students make their way - some swaying, arms around each other - to a dining hall that serves greasy late-night food, a service schools have begun to offer to get sustenance in the stomachs of imbibing students.

The students who threw the party begin picking up beer cans, putting furniture back into place - and de-tagging unflattering photos on Facebook.

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