COLUMBIA — It’s the weekend of the Missouri-Nebraska football game, and tailgaters crowd the parking lots and back porches of Columbia, singing their team songs and proudly displaying their home colors. In a sea of black and gold, the lyrics to “Bartender” by T-Pain mingle with the aroma of alcohol and hot dogs. Cheers erupt as MU senior Justus Arnett of Farmington pours a waterfall of beer from a mini keg down a friend’s throat in a parking lot.
Though Arnett has never had a drink in his life — preferring Gatorade to Bud Light — he is a rebel at heart. “I hate peer pressure, so I wanted to defy it,” he said.
But he claims to like drunk people, or at least to be amused by them. For his friends, it means always having a designated driver with a great sense of humor.
October is national Alcohol Responsibility Month, a time when the MU Wellness Resource Center makes a particular effort to teach MU students about the dangers and consequences of drinking. Programs have titles like “Booze, Food & Sleep: Get the Most Out of Your Weekend” and “Love on the Rocks: Sex and Alcohol.”
Preaching abstinence isn’t the goal of the center’s programming, because the reality is that only a small number of MU students do not drink — between 15 percent and 20 percent, a figure that has changed little over the past 10 years, said Kim Dude, director of the center. It’s a tough route to choose and carries some uncool stereotypes: goody two-shoes, ultra-religious, geeky and just plain boring.
For at least three students at MU, choosing not to drink comes from firsthand negative experiences with the damage drinking can do.
Won’t waste college
Justus Arnett likes the TV show South Park, going to parties with his friends and riding four-wheelers, adding with a chuckle that his money goes to riding ATVs rather than to buying alcohol.
Every one of Arnett’s friends drink. He’s observed that sober people are “the quiet people at the party.”
Not him. Initially reserved, Arnett, 22, cuts loose with his friends and helps them have fun. He even drove a friend all around town looking for a particular kind of mini keg for the Nebraska game.
But the peer pressure ends at the rim of the glass in his hand. And it hasn’t been easy. It began when he was a freshman in high school and seniors urged him to drink. It continued in college with friends who chided him to “just try a sip, it won’t get ya drunk,” he recalled. Even in the comfort of his own home, his four older brothers couldn’t understand his decision not to drink. He is the only one of his brothers who has never had a drink.
Growing up in a household where money was tight, Arnett refuses to leave any room for the possibility that he’ll waste his life getting drunk. “I go out pretty much every Friday or Saturday night, but very rarely do I go out on school nights,” he said. An honor student, he dedicates Sunday through Thursday nights to his studies.
If anything, Arnett’s resolution not to drink has been reinforced by what he’s seen around him. “I would never want to screw myself over,” he said, “I want the lifestyle that my parents worked so hard to get. I don’t want anything to mess it up.”
Keeping a clear head
MU senior Brian Bage of St. Louis has never had a drink, a fact he thinks would surprise some who know him. After all, he’s a rugby player, he has friends who drink and he isn’t a stellar student.
Bage said he thinks a nondrinker does well academically and is not involved in extracurricular activities. In contrast to the stereotype, Bage fills his nights with sports and bar-hopping.
“After rugby practice around 7:30, we get pizza and about one or two pitchers of beer per person,” he said.
Bage, 21, passes on the pitchers, and health is the reason. “I am very active, and I want to be in the best shape I can possibly be in,” he said.
Before he was of legal drinking age, Bage abstained from alcohol because of the Bible edict to obey authority. He describes himself as a “pretty strong Christian.”
After he joined the rugby team, he was challenged to some locker room bets about how soon he would begin drinking. Bage has yet to lose the gamble. It helps that he has seen firsthand how destructive alcohol can be. He tells of a family member whose personality is unpredictable when he’s drinking.
For him, there’s no risk of saying or doing something that he would have to blame on alcohol, and he’s proud of that. “I think I can have a closer connection with people since I am not worrying about not remembering what I did, or having regrets,” Bage said.
Making friends can be easy while in a drunken daze, but will you remember it in the morning? Bage said that’s a problem he’s happy to avoid.
Doesn’t need it
MU sophomore Emily Camp of St. Louis also said she thinks that she defies the nondrinker stereotype.
“Most people who don’t drink cannot stand people who do, and they tend to stereotype,” she said.
Camp, 19, sometimes attends parties with friends who drink and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But there’s a downside.
“One of the disadvantages of not drinking is missing out on certain relationships because people (who do drink) may not think I’m as fun,” Camp said. “They tend to think that if I don’t want to drink, then I won’t want to hang out, and that’s not true.”
Camp said she’s “goofy, stupid and crazy enough as it is, and I don’t need alcohol to loosen me up.” Camp acknowledges that her college experience might differ from that of those who do drink, but it won’t be any less “wild and crazy.”
Camp has a busy life. She paints, sews, hikes, reads, and goes rock-climbing and biking. She also works the floors of MU’s Recreation Center, studies avidly, baby-sits and volunteers at an area ministry. In November, she’ll add managing the Rock Bridge High School Wrestling team to her routine.
She’s an aspiring personal trainer and marathon runner. With a race looming in April, she wants nothing to slow her down.
There’s another reason: Drinking was the culprit in a Camp family crisis.
“My older sister got drunk one night and ended up getting pregnant,” Camp said. Her sister is now happily engaged, but the event had an effect on Camp.
Understanding the dangers of drunken decisions, Camp wants to help her friends avoid problems by watching out for them with a clear head. “Guys can convince girls to do things they don’t want to when drunk,” she said.
Like Bage, Camp said it is easier to build meaningful relationships without alcohol. “I’ve been told (by friends who drink) it’s nice to have real conversations,” Camp said.
She prides herself on being available to people, and looking out for their interests. That includes driving them safely home when necessary.
With the majority of the student body making the decision to drink, designated drivers are valuable.
“(Forty-four percent of students have driven under the influence one time in the past year,” said Dude, of the Wellness Resource Center. But the majority of students do not drive under the influence, based on research at MU, she said.
Stripes, a volunteer organization that works as a taxi service for students who can’t safely drive themselves home, has made its mark on campus, though students sometimes complain that the wait for a car is too long on busy drinking nights.
Mason Prashek, who has been the director of Stripes for the past two semesters, said that since Stripes began seven years ago, the number of volunteer drivers has declined slightly. But, it’s starting to pick back up again. About 30 to 40 people volunteer regularly, and a handful of students come in on occasion.
When there aren’t enough volunteers, the wait time gets long, and that raises the risk that a student will decide to get into his or her own car and drive home.
“We try to run as many cars as we can,” Prashek said. “The wait can get to about two hours, but we’ll stay out as late as necessary to get everyone home safely.”
Long after the tailgate is over and the keg has run dry, Arnett, Camp and Bage can only imagine what a hangover feels like.
Rather than feeling left out, all three say they have the respect of their friends.
“Some people say to me, ‘Wow, I wish I hadn’t started drinking,’” Arnett said.
“People generally respect me,” Camp said.
Deciding not to drink has become a part of Bage’s identity. “Some look up to me and respect me for it,” he said. “People know me for that, and I’ve become proud of it.”