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Popular, Student-Taught Class Targets Problem Of Alcohol Abuse

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted September 29, 1999

A year-old class, created by a fraternity and a sorority member trying to prevent alcohol abuse among their Greek brothers and sisters, already has won an award and fills up so fast that dozens of students can't get a seat.

"We saw a problem and decided to take the issue into our own hands," said Lindsey Mercer, president of Berkeley's College Panhellenic Association and a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority. She and Chi Psi fraternity member Dan Murphy, president of the campus's Intrafraternity Council, launched the course in fall 1998.

"Alcohol impairs people's judgment," said Mercer, "which can sometimes lead to trouble. Students get into fights, experience blackouts and, in some cases, suffer from alcohol poisoning or become victims of sexual assault."

The two-unit, upper-division "Berkeley Educates on Alcohol Responsibility Seminars" or, simply B.E.A.R.S., is offered in the School of Public Health to Berkeley fraternity and sorority members. Instead of using a "Just Say No" approach, the course has a more realistic focus -- responsible drinking. Each member of the class signs a contract, a commitment to make a difference in the Greek community.

Interest in the class has exploded since it first was introduced in fall 1998. "At first, we were begging students to sign up," said Mercer. "Now, we are expecting up to 100 people to sign up for only 24 spots in spring semester."

Students who took B.E.A.R.S. last fall helped attract double the number of fraternity and sorority members to the spring 1999 class.

The success of the class couldn't have come at a better time, as a nationwide campaign against binge drinking was launched earlier this month by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. The group ran a full-page ad on the dangers of drinking in more than 100 newspapers around the country, signed by presidents of 113 colleges and universities, including Chancellor Berdahl.

The cutting-edge approach of B.E.A.R.S. has also caught the eye of local and national media. In the Bay Area, articles appeared in the Oakland Tribune and the Examiner. Several B.E.A.R.S. educators were interviewed by 20/20, ABC's national news magazine, for a program on college drinking to be aired later this fall.

Mercer, a senior, said she got tired of watching some of her fellow fraternity and sorority members return home after a late night of heavy drinking.

The idea that she and Murphy pitched to the campus -- a student-led approach to reducing alcohol consumption among college students -- filled a niche at Berkeley, said Aida Acerda, a health educator at the University Health Services who helped develop curriculum for the class.

"We believe one of the most effective methods to reduce excessive drinking among students have been peer-led," she said. "Student involvement is crucial and fundamental in prevention programs and is one of the many tools needed to reduce problem drinking."

Mercer added that students would rather discuss sensitive issues with their peers and that, as a result, "our educators can have a significant impact on students' health."

Acerda said B.E.A.R.S. also taps into Greek pride, the Greeks' tradition of leadership, breaks down barriers between Greek houses, and trains students to become role models and agents of change at the university.

The class "represents the Greek community taking a critical look at itself and deciding that it was time to do something about the alcohol issue in the community," said Bernard Griego, faculty adviser for the class and a University Health Services educator. "It works because the students involved with B.E.A.R.S. care about the Greek community and want to make a difference."

Organized by students, B.E.A.R.S. features guest lecturers from University Health Services, the School of Public Health, the UC Police Department, local alcohol addiction centers, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and emergency medical technicians.

Lectures explore the physiological, chemical and social aspects of alcohol use and misuse with an emphasis on college life. Topics covered include binge drinking, how alcohol is promoted in advertising, hazing, the legal consequences of drinking, and intervention.

Tips on safe drinking also are presented. For example, "you should always watch while your drink is being poured," said Mercer. "This cuts down on the chance of a Roofie being dropped in." "Roofie" is a slang term for the date-rape drug Rophynol.

Students use the informtion they receive in class to become B.E.A.R.S. educators, creating outreach programs that encourage freshmen to think before they drink. Using skits, quizzes, videos and frank dialogue, presentations are made at fraternities and sororities, residence halls and cooperative houses throughout campus.

"Being drunk is not cool," said Mercer. "We want young people coming to Cal to know that they can have a good time drinking just two or three beers instead of six -- or not drinking at all."

Many who took the class last year want to stay involved in B.E.A.R.S., she said. Mercer currently is trying to secure grants to expand the program and keep class alumni active. She has received some financial support from campus administrators.

After winning a national Panhellenic award last year, the B.E.A.R.S. program garnered attention from colleges nationwide. Several campuses, including UC Davis and the University of Colorado, have called Mercer for guidance in setting up a similar program.

But the greatest reward for Mercer is the positive feedback she has received from young people in the workshops. According to Mercer, most participants said they were thankful that organizers cared enough to discuss alcohol use in an open and honest manner and that their perceptions of alcohol use had changed.



September 29 - October 5, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 8)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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