Drinkin Culture as a Rite of Passage in the College Environment

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Table of Contents

  • Background of the Study:
  • Research Question:
  • Literature Review:
  • Social Inclusion at University
    Alcohol Consumption on University Campuses
    Harm Reduction Strategies to Combat Student Drinking
    Our Research Design and Methods:
  • Ethical Concerns

Background of the Study:

Located in Fredericton New Brunswick, St. Thomas University is a school that prides itself on being ‘the small university of big opportunity’ (St. Thomas University) and promises things such as a sense of community as well as the opportunity to develop lasting friendships. Even though St. Thomas University prides itself on having a dry welcome week (St. Thomas University, 2019), drinking culture is still alive and relevant on campus, just as it is across most Canadian campuses. Drinking culture is especially present in the on-campus residences which include Holy Cross House, Vanier Hall, and Harrington Hall. For many students who are away from home for the first time and who are new to alcohol, drinking (often binge-drinking large amounts) can be seen as a rite of passage and a way to experience the ‘real’ university experience that is promised in things like movies and other medias. Because of this, it is important that we gain a clear understanding of the relationship between students living on campus and alcohol use.

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While drinking and partying in residence may be viewed as a social norm across Canadian universities, back in 2019, St. Thomas University introduced a brand-new residence life harm reduction strategy that prohibits students from drinking in residence lounges as well as “prohibits parties for students who are living in the Windsor-Street properties which are also owned by the school” (Chavez, 2019). This study was created to examine the relationship between first-year St. Thomas students living on-campus and the perceived sense of community and rite of passage by looking at why first year students engage in drinking culture. This will be done by answering the following question: How has the implementation of a new harm reduction strategy banning alcohol from communal spaces at STU impacted on-campus students’ sense of social inclusion at STU?

Research Question:

How has the implementation of a new harm reduction strategy banning alcohol from communal spaces at STU impacted on-campus students’ sense of social inclusion at STU?

Literature Review:

Social Inclusion at University

As a first-year student, having a sense of community within the campus can shape your entire experience at school, especially for those living in residence. There are multiple factors that come into play when discussing a student’s sense of belonging on campus and according to research done by David Cheng, there are four main aspects surrounding a university student’s life and how it affects their sense of community at the school (Cheng, 2004).

The first point that was brought up by Cheng is that for students, feeling cared about and valued directly relates to their sense of belonging on campus (Cheng, 2004). It is important to students feel valued because according to Cheng, ‘the most negative influence on a student’s sense of community comes from his or her feeling of loneliness on campus. This is the flip side of the above point—the lack of sense of community may well be the result of feeling deprived of care, respect, and individual value on campus’ (Cheng, 2004, p. 227). Another point brought up by Cheng was that while social life on campus does affect a student’s sense of community, having a friend group is not the only social factor. Cheng argues that there needs to be ‘organized social opportunities’ on campus and other opportunities for students to socialize outside of their main circle of friends (Cheng, 2004, p. 227). The final important point that was brought up by Cheng is the idea that rituals and traditions that the school has also played a big part in shaping a student’s sense of community on campus and as campuses become more diverse, universities should find ways to expand and celebrate those traditions (Cheng, 2004).

For our study, we can use Cheng’s research to examine how first-year students living on campus feel about St. Thomas University’s efforts when it comes to fostering a sense of community on campus and within the residence and then look at how alcohol plays into this perceived sense of community. Cheng’s idea of rituals and traditions playing a big part in shaping community is also important because it allows us as researchers to see how a thing like April 6th Day and other traditions like having lounge parties affects a student’s sense of community on campus and within a residence.

Cheng’s research was done using quantitative research as it was done using a survey. The research could benefit from using qualitative methods like an interview. For example, using a qualitative approach gives us as researchers a chance to ask participants about things like April 6th Day and other residence events that often include alcohol and how the new policy personally affects their sense of community.

Alcohol Consumption on University Campuses

Alcohol consumption plays a major role in university campuses all over North American and Europe. In fact, studies show that student’s in university drink more than other young adults in the same age group (Oxford, Krishnan, Balaam, Everitt, & Van Der Graaf, 2004), and while specific policies have been put into place in many universities in effort to combat student drinking, research shows that rates of student drinking are on the rise (Crawford & Novak, 2006). However, this finding is not unusual as a study done by the Journal of American College Health argues that across many campuses drinking is seen as a rite of passage and a social norm (Arbour-Nicitopoulos, Kwan, Lowe, Taman, & Fulkner, 2010). While social norms are key factors, there are also other explanations as to why students drink. For example, one study found that student’s drink because it boosts there self-confidence (Oxford, Krishnan, Balaam, Everitt, & Van Der Graaf, 2004), while another study shows that inaccurate perceptions of alcohol consumption may trigger students to drink more: ‘the findings suggest that Canadian university students, similar to their US peers, have inaccurate perceptions of substance use by their campus peers. Moreover, these misperceptions may have potentially negative influences on students’ actual substance use, although this needs confirmation through experimental research’ (Arbour-Nicitopoulos, Kwan, Lowe, Taman, & Fulkner, 2010, p. 195).

These three research studies have all be done using quantitative methods of collecting data in the form of surveys. Using qualitative methods like interviews could benefit our study because it gives us as researchers a chance to dive deeper into the idea of perceived social norms and how these social norms and rites of passage affect student’s living on campus and the amount of alcohol they consume. We could then see if the new policy changes affect student’s ideas of social norms or if the changes somehow ‘ruins’ their perceived idea of the university experience. We could also use qualitative research to see if the amount of alcohol being consumed is increased when participants are around their peers, as well as talk to the participants about how much alcohol they themselves think is being consumed.

Harm Reduction Strategies to Combat Student Drinking

For first-year university student’s new-found independence can be a struggle. For some, this can be their first time where they are allowed (and almost encouraged) to consume alcohol. While most universities have harm reduction strategies in place, research shows that these policies can have negative effects. In their research, Wilkinson and Ivsins identify drinking policies as a risk factor by bringing up that drinking policies can increase binge-drinking behaviors’, “regarding the policy risk environment, although university alcohol policy and policy-implementation intends to manage risky drinking and associated behaviors’ and harms, these policies may indirectly increase unsafe drinking practices and contribute to alcohol use-related harms” (Wilkinson & Ivsins, 2017, p. 22). Their research found that by having restrictive policies in place that limit alcohol on campus, it pushes students to drink off-campus which can then lead to dangerous situations.

On the other hand, according to research conducted by Brown and Murphy, campus settings where alcohol consumption is perceived as permissive, risky behavior is more likely to be expressed and conducted, “the benefits of drinking together, coupled with reported resistance to alcohol education messages reminiscent of secondary education, mean that the use of safe drinking messages commonly seen in UK campuses is likely to be ineffective” (Brown & Murphy, 2018, p. 11). Having harm-reduction policies in place may help students transition easier, however, more research needs to be done.

Both research projects used qualitative methods (interviews) to gather data. While this is beneficial, it would also benefit to use surveys like we intend to use. By using quantitative data, we would be able to see several trends that may not be available in interviews. For example, we would be able to see whether safe drinking messages across campus really affected student’s drinking habits and could see whether harm reduction strategies encourage students to drink off campus which could lead to dangerous behavior that would not be monitored the same as it would be in residence.


While plenty of research has been done looking at why students drink and the importance of having a sense of community on campus, there is a lack of research done in looking at how drinking policies are affecting student’s sense of belonging and pre-convinced ideas of university. By increasing the amount of research available through surveys and interviews, it will give us researchers a chance to see exactly how St. Thomas University’s new drinking policy is directly affecting students living in residence and what that means for the university. This information will then, in turn, be helpful for the university because they can see how students are really feeling and in turn adapt future policies based on our findings.

Our Research Design and Methods:

When it comes to our research study and its’ participants, students must be first-year St. Thomas University students who are living in one of the residences (this includes Harrington Hall, Vanier Hall, and Holy Cross House). To conduct our research, we will be using a research approach known as mixed-methods research to collect our data. By using this approach, we are combining both qualitative and quantitative styles of data gathering in order to get the most accurate information available. When it comes to the differences between the two, Deborah Van den Hoonard breaks it down best by describing it as follows: qualitative research “involves little to no advance knowledge of the types of data to be collected”, it “allows participants to define how the study progresses and what the data means” and “strives for accuracy: researchers do not invent the actors viewpoint” (van den Hoonaard, 2018, p. 22). Meanwhile, quantitative research often “involves advance knowledge of the types of data to be collected”, “strives for reliability: researchers make sure the findings can be replicated” and “relies on objective experiments” (van den Hoonaard, 2018, p. 22).

As stated above, for our research, we will be using both approaches to collect data. The exact methods that are being used to collect the data are interviews and surveys. For our qualitative aspect of the research, participants will be asked a variety of questions that pertain to social life, drinking in residence and their experiences at St. Thomas University. For our quantitative aspect, we will be handing out surveys so that we can gather and analyze further data.

Both quantitative and qualitative methods have their strengths and weaknesses, and both play crucial roles in aiding in meaningful data collecting. We have chosen to use a mixed-methods approach because using both quantitative and qualitative measures help to ensure that our findings are the most accurate. Using a mixed-methods approach also gives us as researchers better insight into the question that is being asked: “How has the implementation of a new harm reduction strategy banning alcohol from communal spaces at STU impacted on-campus students’ sense of social inclusion at STU?” By using interviews (qualitative research) it gives participants a chance to share things that would not come up when looking at numbers and other trends that are gathered through surveys. During interviews, participants are given the chance to elaborate on why they choose to drink and how the new policy changes will affect their experiences as students. On the other hand, quantitative data gathered in the form of surveys are also important as it helps us as researchers identify trends and patterns that may not be obvious when collecting data through interviews alone.

It is important to use both quantitative research like surveys and qualitative research like interviews in our study so that we as researchers get the most detailed and accurate data possible (Van den Hoonard, 2018). Interviews and surveys alone do not provide the widest viewpoint, but by having both sets of data available to us and using both sets of that data, it allows us as researchers see the widest viewpoint possible and allow us to see specific examples that are relevant to St. Thomas University’s residence life.

Ethical Concerns

Participants in our research study face minimal risk of experiencing emotional distress and discomfort. By talking about their experiences at St. Thomas University, their experiences with alcohol and how the new alcohol policy affects them, participants will naturally be having differing opinions and there is a potential for a variety of emotions to be felt such as anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness. There is also a chance for bad memories to be brought up while recalling past experiences.

While conducting our research we as researchers will work to ensure that the “Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans” (van den Hoonaard, 2018, p. 55) is closely followed to ensure that respect for the participant is ensured. Before both the survey and the interview are started, participants will be made aware of the potential risks and will be informed that they are able to stop or leave at any stage without repercussion.

I myself am a third-year university student at St. Thomas University. Even though I no longer live in residence, I have had experience living in Vanier Hall back in my first year. While I was never much of a drinker, I do have lots of friends who were and do have quite a bit of experience when it comes to people drinking and socializing in residence. Because of this, I feel as though my experience may influence what I expect to hear from participants.

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