Late one weekend night six or seven years ago, local police rushed to the Saint Michael’s College campus in Vermont to check out a report of a large gathering. They started breaking up the party but found that, to everyone’s surprise, the source of ruckus was not a keg stand or game of beer pong, but a table of immensely popular chicken patty sandwiches.
The mix-up bode well for officials at the Vermont liberal arts college, who’d cooked up the weekend barbecue idea as a way to minimize alcohol-related incidents and keep an eye on students who may have had too much to drink. On any given Friday or Saturday night, one-third to nearly half of the college’s 2,000 students show up during prime partying hours to hang out with campus staff and fill up on alcohol-absorbing hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken sandwiches. (Yes, they have veggie burgers as well. "In Vermont, you kind of have to," Saint Michael’s President John Neuhauser says.)
The cookouts were part of a broader programming effort designed to influence behavior of freshmen and sophomores (the feast caps off an evening of community-building dorm activities), but there was an unintended side effect: a reduction among all students in binge drinking and conduct code violations, such as fights and underage citations.
“Students started scheduling their time to leave an activity to go to the grill between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. to get food,” Director of Residence Life Lou DiMasi and Associate Dean of Students Megan Ohler said in an email. During Vermont winters, the students brave rain, snow, sleet and hail. “There became a community atmosphere – a family – congregated around the grill each weekend night.”
The college doesn't have hard data on how much student behavior has improved, but the staff agree there's strong anecdotal evidence of the cookouts' safety benefits.
“It’s a good idea to get food in everybody’s stomach, and it does give us a chance to look at people,” Neuhauser said, “to tell people when they need to go home.”
Student affairs departments are always looking for late-night activities to keep students safe and entertained. But at rural colleges like Saint Michael’s, and many suburban ones where everyone lives on campus and the downtown bars are a mile away, it’s even more imperative, said Todd Porter, co-chair of the Alcohol and Other Drug Knowledge Community for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
“Specifically with residential campuses, in those environments, alternatives are needed or students are going to find opportunities that do involve alcohol,” Porter said, “because there’s nothing else to do in those areas.”
Most late-night programming – arts and crafts, board games, comedians and the like – is geared toward students who already choose not to drink, said Michelle Issadore, executive director of the School and College Organization for Prevention Educators. The cookouts appeal to any student who’s up for free food (so, pretty much all of them), including those who’ve already had a few drinks.
“This is the first I’ve seen that sort of takes into account that students may be partying,” Issadore said. “This is a way of getting them home, perhaps earlier, before more abuses take place.”
Neuhauser believes the residential setup of the college is advantageous. While juniors and seniors are allowed to drink in their campus apartments, the long drive to the bars discourages them from driving downtown or relying on a late-night drive home from someone else.
“The decision to make living on campus a requirement was partially motivated just because we wanted to be able to control what students did, and particularly where they drove,” Neuhauser said. “Once you’re deciding to do this, you’re also making a commitment to do a lot more programming on nights and weekends.”
Such a program might not be as successful at a large research university, Issadore said, because students there might have an entire city just a few steps away. But it could be a promising model for small liberal arts colleges, she said, if the anecdotal evidence holds true.
"I think that would be really promising data."