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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Black Out or Back Out? Drinking Culture and Tradition at Dartmouth

Two writers talk to current and former students about their relationship with alcohol consumption and its perception on campus.

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Over 100 years ago, Dr. Bob Smith, a member of the Class of 1902, was expelled from medical school. The reason? Largely his alcoholic tendencies, which developed during his time as a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa (now Kappa Pi Kappa) fraternity. Even after transferring medical schools, his drinking habits followed him into his career as surgeon. Eventually, Smith became sober and co-founded an alcoholic support group with a partner, Bill Wilson. The name of the organization? Alcoholics Anonymous. 

More than 120 years after Smith’s graduation in 1902, drinking culture on campus still remains an issue at the forefront of Dartmouth life. On Dec. 23, Business Insider published an article by Evan Lambert ’11, in which Lambert discussed how Dartmouth campus culture normalized his frequent “blackouts.” He stayed a frequent drinker through his early adult years before finally getting sober in his late 20s. 

Although he was not a frequent drinker before Dartmouth. Lambert found that Dartmouth’s culture incentivized alcohol consumption. 

“I barely touched alcohol before coming to Dartmouth … I was the goody two-shoes nerd,” he said. “[At Dartmouth], I felt like I needed to [drink] to be cool and to fit in.”

Jack Wisdom ’26, who has abstained from drinking alcohol at Dartmouth, remarked that students often “lack the self-confidence or self-control,” to not drink, particularly due to social pressure.

“[Students] find … problems when they dabble and can’t stop because they’re worried about being perceived in a certain way,” he said

For many students, it seems like the only option for socializing on an “on-night” involves alcohol consumption. Rachel Hechtman ’12, founder of the alcohol-free motivational program “Sober in Central Park,” experienced the lack of alternative social events during her time at Dartmouth. 

“There’s not much to do besides drink … the people that didn’t drink when we were there transferred,” she said. “They didn’t stay at Dartmouth.”

Nearly 10 years later, Isabella Macioce ’24 still sees the same drinking culture among Dartmouth students.

When family members ask about drinking at Dartmouth, she tells them, “there’s kind of nothing else to do, we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Sometimes the pressure comes not from outside, but from within. Students noted the difficulty of finding a way to relax with a schedule filled to the brim with classes and extracurricular commitments. 

“If you’re in class studying all day, your social life would revolve around [drinking]. That’d be your time to relax and to catch up [with friends],” Lambert said.

At Dartmouth, relaxing and catching up may involve a game of pong, where drinking can become a performance, even a skill. Macioce acknowledged how the culture of playing pong can lead to binge drinking.

“It's a good thing to win at pong. But if you’re running table for like, three or four games, it’s a lot of beer,” she said. “It definitely encourages [binge drinking], because you want to keep winning.”

In a pong game, or any drinking occasion, what happens after consuming a succession of beers or other alcoholic drinks? Sometimes, a blackout. Typically occurring when one’s BAC reaches 0.14, a blackout results in the individual being unable to remember their actions while drinking. 

Both Lambert and Hechtman said blackouts flew under the radar for concerning behavior during their time at Dartmouth. 

Hechtman said of the culture at the time that “a lot of my friends ended up in the hospital at different times with really high blood [alcohol levels] ... one of my friends had a blood alcohol level of 0.42.”

According to Alcohol.org, a BAC above 0.4 may put you in a coma or even cause sudden death.

Lambert emphasized that many of his issues with alcohol consumption in college went unnoticed by friends, and the high number of alcohol abusers allowed him to rationalize his own consumption.

“There was always someone who was getting caught by the cops that I knew or someone who … blew a ridiculously high BAC,” he said. “So I could always say, ‘Well that person is clearly an alcoholic … I don’t have that problem’ … No one ever really thought that I had the same problem.”  

Macioce and Max Weinstein ’24 have seen a culture of blacking out during their time at Dartmouth, but both noticed a shift from the way students drank as freshmen to the way they now drink as seniors. 

“Freshman year I saw a lot of people blacking out a number of times a week,” Weinstein recalled. “As I’ve gotten older, I see less of [students blacking out], but … it depends on a person-to-person basis.”

Macioce said perception of alcohol consumption on campus changed during her sophomore year when many sophomores joined a Greek house. According to her, Greek life strongly promotes alcohol consumption.  

“You have to start really defining your relationship with alcohol… because [drinking alcohol] is encouraged so much [once] you rush,” Macicoce said. “[At a certain point], I was like, “I legitimately can’t keep doing this.” So I decided to go sober for the rest of my sophomore year, which was a really good decision.”

This seems to be a long-standing trend: Hechtman said this shift happened even in 2012, when she watched her friends rush Greek houses. 

“I watched some of my guy friends from freshman year change to totally different people by the end of sophomore year,” she said. “I think a lot of it was that they were encouraged to drink as much as possible.”

To help combat some of the social pressure involved with drinking, Macioce joined the Polar Project, which gives participating sororities and fraternities “eight cases of Polar seltzer per registered event,” so students have an alternative, non-alcoholic beverage. Spearheaded by the Student Wellness Center, the project provides students with the “placebo effect of having a can in their hands,” according to Macioce. 

But even with projects like these, if drinking still remains part of the fabric of Dartmouth and Greek Life, what happens after students graduate and leave campus? 

Both Lambert and Hechtman only noticed that their alcohol consumption was impacting their day-to-day life years after college. 

Lambert realized that something had to change when he was working as a copywriter, and “waking up in the middle of the week with a hangover and having to go to work … was affecting [his] performance.” 

Hechtman has been sober for just over two years since pursuing a “dry January” in 2021, a challenge in which drinkers refrain from consuming alcohol throughout the entirety of the first month of the year. Her friends from Dartmouth have also gradually chosen sobriety, and now, “[about] half the people that [she is] still friends with from Dartmouth are completely sober.”

It is never simple or easy to make the decision to drink or not to drink. However, resources exist on campus. The Dartmouth Counseling Center provides individual counseling for substance abuse and non-AA group therapy, and the Student Wellness Center runs the BASICS program, or Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students.

Lambert gave this advice to students who are sober-curious or looking to get sober.

“There will be peer pressure, and you will be judged by a lot of people. But you’ve made this decision because it’s the best decision for you,” he said. “It’s hard, but you have to stick to your guns. [If you can] turn down a drink, even when it’s in your face, you can smell it, you can imagine how it’s going to taste ... if you do that once, it gets easier.”

Correction Appended (Jan. 18, 3:42 p.m.):

A previous version of the article incorrectly listed Hechtman's class year as 2015.