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Karen Hughes: Putting the brakes on college drinking

Coordinator, PartySafe@Cal, University Health Services

| 20 October 2009

Karen Hughes' job — helping to curb students' use of booze — began with an internship at the San Francisco-based Trauma Foundation, where she studied environmental approaches to reducing alcohol-related problems, while earning her masters' degree in public health at Berkeley. Hughes went on to work on an alcohol-tax campaign and as a facilitator for the Contra Costa County Health Department, then left the workforce to raise her two children. Four years ago, she landed her current job, and with it the chance to cultivate "an improved alcohol environment" in her own backyard, as she puts it.

Karen HughesKaren Hughes (Wendy Edelstein/NewsCenter photo)

Q. How does PartySafe@Cal approach alcohol education?
A. We focus on the environment — the context within which choices are made. We look at the social, economic, legal, and academic factors that inform people's alcohol choices.

Q. How do you talk to students about alcohol use?
A. I tell them that I'm not going to talk about their personal drinking decisions. It's not that I don't care about their drinking choices — I actually do, a lot — but I take a different tack. "I'm talking to you as future mayors, future health-department leaders — because that's where you're heading," I say. "I'm going to help you understand where this problem fits into the communities, and help you identify cost-effective preventive strategies." Addressing them this way is more positive than lecturing them about the dangers of alcohol, which they see as an assault on their adulthood.

Q. Are there opportunities, here and now, to apply what they learn from you?
A. Yes. Many of them are student leaders who can and do shape the drinking environments of their living, social, academic, athletic, and other student organizations.

Q. How does the environmental approach differ from other strategies?
A. More traditional approaches involve changing what individuals know or believe about alcohol use. Those strategies are based on the notion that if someone is well informed, they'll make different choices.

Q. Isn't that a good tactic?
A. With alcohol, as well as other health issues, we know that individual education is necessary but it's insufficient if you aren't simultaneously trying to change the broader context.

Alcohol Awareness Week

Oct. 18-25 is Alcohol Awareness Week at Cal. Activities will include a survey and discussion targeted to campus staff and faculty, available on the PartySafe@Cal website.

Q. What might people not realize about college drinking?
A. People often underestimate the consequences of college drinking, yet they overestimate its intractability and perceive that there's nothing to be done.

Q. What's currently on your agenda?
A. I'm trying to bring together on- and off-campus organizations devoted to alcohol prevention — groups that don't necessarily know one another — to plan and align our activities.

Q. What do you like most about your job?
A. Meeting and introducing the various stakeholders in our community — faculty, staff, students, parents, merchants — to the unique ways that they can contribute in making a difference in reducing the harm associated with alcohol.