Welcome Week is an incredible opportunity for new students to get involved in university affairs, socialise with fellow students, and settle into their new home. However, this process seems to be largely lubricated by the continuous flow of alcohol that runs through the core of Welcome Week. Thus students who do not drink for religious, health, or lifestyle reasons may have a harder time enjoying their introduction to university life than others.
The Edinburgh University Students’ Association provides some advice for clubs and societies in their 2016/17 Office Bearer Guide, stating that ‘for the purpose of the society or committee’s reputation and inclusion, socials shouldn’t always involve alcohol’ as social events held and bars or pubs ‘may exclude some students’. They state that ‘it’s worth considering mixing things up with other types of events like meals or activities’.
However, these recommendations feel half-hearted, and very little space in the 35 page-long guide is given to recommending catering to sober new students; the Students’ Association appears to be more concerned with protecting themselves from criticism than effectively providing support for those new students who choose not to drink alcohol.
Besides, a massive proportion of clubs and societies still hold socials in boozy venues like bars or pubs, even if the intent of the event isn’t explicitly to get as drunk as possible (although there is certainly no shortage of society pub-crawls which totally exclude non-drinkers). Those events specifically tailored to non-drinkers are largely regarded as boring – one sober student stated: “they’re really shit – if someone walked up to me and asked if I wanted to go on the Harry Potter escape train, I’d say f*ck that”.
Welcome Week itself seems inherently boozy, and one gets the impression that it is near-impossible for new students to immerse themselves in the experience without drinking and, aside from clubs and societies, most of the socialising between new friends tends to centre around going for a pint or heading over to that night’s club event – leaving as strangers but returning, plastered, as life-long friends.
Of course, this is understandable as many new students have recently turned eighteen and it can be hard moving alone to a new city surrounded by new people without a bit of Dutch courage to ease the transition. However, this can make the process more difficult for sober new students who feel even more isolated because of their alternative lifestyle choice, making the already-challenging event of moving to university harder for some.
In fact, Welcome Week pivots so centrally around drinking that Gordon Brown considered using the Higher Education Funding Council’s influence to prohibit universities from encouraging “excessive” drinking due to the concerning amount of alcohol consumed by students during their first weeks at university.
Although it is largely agreed that university, compared with school, is more accepting of lifestyle differences and far more free from social exclusion, students may implicitly exclude others without intending to do so, and this is largely the case for non-drinkers. While few students would actively reject a person based on their choice to not drink alcohol, new student’s socialising is so heavily focused on drinking that non-drinkers can feel excluded simply due to the apparent impossibility of their getting involved in the majority of social events occurring around them.
Fundamentally, it seems that although sober students can enjoy their Welcome Week by getting involved in sports and societies, the drinking-centred culture of Welcome Week – from boozy society socials to club night promotions – leaves sober students feeling isolated and restricted, regardless of superficial efforts to cater to them.
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