Moorhead requires course on alcohol

by Lily Langerud

Whether they drink or not, college students typically are exposed to alcohol within their first week on campus.

While University students have the option of taking a class on how to handle this new environment, another Minnesota university is taking new measures to address binge drinking.

Last week, Minnesota State University, Moorhead’s class of 2010 became the first students in the state who will be required to take an orientation course on alcohol and college life.

Developed by a University of Minnesota professor and student, Alcohol and College Life (PubH1003) is a one-credit, online-based elective course available primarily to first-year students at the University of Minnesota. Minnesota State-Moorhead will require the course in an attempt to combat unsafe drinking and inform students about drinking norms.

Two drinking-related deaths in the past two years at Minnesota State-Moorhead prompted the creation of a presidential task force on student alcohol misuse, said Susanne Williams, assistant to that university’s president and chairwoman of the task force.

“The tragic loss that we’ve suffered as a campus and as a community underscores the importance of what we’re doing,” Williams said.

Jerry Rinehart, University vice provost for Student Affairs, said the University is not looking at making the course a requirement, but rather publicizing the course to students and parents.

“We have some evidence that shows students are more satisfied with courses they choose,” Rinehart said. “(The course addresses) an area of personal decision making that college requirements usually don’t get into.”

There’s probably no end to courses that are good for students, but making them required is a path the University doesn’t want to go down, Rinehart said.

“We are aware that binge-drinking problems are worse than they used to be,” Rinehart said, referencing a 2005 Boynton Health Service survey that found that 45.1 percent of students aged 18 to 24 were “high-risk drinkers,” defined as those who consuming five or more drinks in one sitting.

Jim Rothenberger, public health professor, created the course along with Tayne DeNeui, a University graduate who was a sophomore at the time. It first was offered in fall 2002.

Rothenberger said the course aims to give students a “consistent message” about alcohol from the University. The three-part message includes encouraging first-year students who don’t drink to remain sober, encouraging students who already drink to do so safely and counteracting alcohol myths.

“One of the myths that we found in focus groups is that a certain percentage of students feel that it is good to pass out because then you’re no longer absorbing alcohol,” Rothenberger said.

DeNeui, who helped Rothenberger give a “student voice” to the course, said the class addresses a problem on college campuses by offering an orientation for first-year students on how to live in an alcohol-saturated environment.

Thirty-five percent of incoming students surveyed at the time the course was developed hadn’t had any alcohol in the previous 30 days, DeNeui said.

“We also try to offer information for students who don’t drink,” he said. “Like what to do if your roommate comes home drunk.”

First-year Hal Bichel said she took the course because she wanted to pick up another credit.

“Personally I don’t drink or do any drugs myself, but it’s information that would be useful for almost every college student,” she said.

The class is also useful for students coming out of high school who have been exposed only to Drug Abuse Resistance Education, Bichel said.

But while Bichel chose to take the course voluntarily, she said that if it were a requirement she probably would have resented taking it.

“If you try to force someone to learn something they’re going to resist,” she said.

She said word of mouth through students is the best way to encourage people to take the class.

“Honestly after going through high school you sort of learn not to trust things (authorities) tell you, especially about drugs and alcohol,” she said.

Ellen Orchard, a teaching assistant for the course, took it two years ago and said she became a teaching assistant because of her interest in public health.

Being a TA for the online-based course involves mostly answering students’ questions by phone or e-mail, she said.

Having the course entirely online makes it more convenient for students, who can listen to it on their MP3 players or take the quizzes in pajamas, she said.

When Minnesota State-Moorhead begins requiring the course in the fall, University students from the Twin Cities will be the TAs, she said.

The situation will be unique because TAs generally have dealt with students who are taking the course because they want to, not because it’s required, she said.

“We’re just going to take it in stride,” Orchard said. “It doesn’t really seem like anything we couldn’t deal with.”

The course is offered at the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses.