Managing perceptions key to promoting healthy behaviors in students

Sarah Littlejohn

As a senior wrapping up my last semester before graduation, I can’t help looking back and thinking I never expected college to be like this. Growing up has been a series of these moments for me: heading towards something and realizing it is different than I imagined but so much more. Some things are better than you dreamed and others are harder than you ever imagined. In following this theme of perception versus reality, I want to reflect on the drinking culture at UT and how alcohol consumption is perceived as substantially higher than it is.

The University of Texas has a reputation as a party school. Many prospective and current students have heard this so often and from so many sources that they believe it to be true. But as the recent data collected through the National College Health Assessment shows, the party school reputation may not be deserved. The survey shows 69 percent of students have consumed alcohol within the last 30 days, and a majority of those students report moderate, non-heavy drinking. The survey data also reports students think 95 percent of their peers have consumed alcohol during this time period, greatly overestimating the actual percentage of drinkers.

Perception is a powerful thing. If someone believes the normal behavior on campus is to drink until blacking out at every social event, then the student may emulate that behavior. Students who don’t feel comfortable with excessive drinking may compromise their personal preferences to comply with social norms. By changing the perception of UT’s alcohol use to mirror actual use, we allow students to follow a new normal that is more reflective of what is really happening on campus.
UT, like most college campuses, does have issues with students and alcohol use. About one-third of UT students are binge drinking, at least on occasion. This type of drinking behavior can lead to negative consequences such as doing something you later regret, having unprotected sex or physically injuring yourself. However, while this is a serious issue, the frequency is much less common than it is often perceived to be.

Let’s change the way we represent our campus both in our actions and words. Instead of perpetuating the myth that UT is a party school, possibly making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, let’s change the unsafe behaviors and practice responsible alcohol consumption.

Finally, if a majority of the students at UT are drinking moderately or not at all, does UT qualify as a party school? I don’t think so. This in no way indicates that UT isn’t an incredible place to go to school. It is the atmosphere on campus and in the city of Austin that provide the “party” vibe, not the amount of alcohol consumption. We are so much more than a party school, and we should take pride in that fact.

Littlejohn is a public health senior from League City, Texas. Littlejohn is a student assistant in University Health Services.