Looking for alcohol alternatives amid 21-ordinance push

BY MORGAN OLSEN | MARCH 26, 2010 7:30 AM

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On Saturday, Allison Allmon expects between 500 and 700 University of Iowa students to join her for a wild — but sober — night.

Allmon, a graduate assistant in the Office of Residence Life, is gearing up for the monthly Night Games.

The nonalcoholic event, which is free and funded by alcohol fines from the dorms, is one way UI officials hope to prevent underage drinking among students.

And if the Iowa City City Council enacts an ordinance early next month to raise the bar-entry age to 21, officials plan to rely more heavily on such alternatives as a lazy river, bowling alley, and free activities.

Tom Rocklin, the interim vice president for Student Services, said he isn’t sure where the funding will come from, but he’s prepared to dole out resources to student groups that will plan alcohol-free activities.

“We want to provide more options on campus for those students who might have few options downtown if the 21-ordinance goes into place,” he said.

Rocklin noted that the new Recreation and Wellness Center, scheduled to be completed this summer, will offer late-night programs, including a lazy river.

Despite free food, prizes, and entertainment, some students remain turned off by alternative UI-sponsored events.

“The activities are fun; the university isn’t doing anything wrong,” said freshman Will Morgan, who frequents downtown bars. “It just can’t compare with the experience at the bars.”

Most programs haven’t begun to prepare for a possible influx of students who can no longer legally frequent bars, and many don’t know what their budgets to deal with it would be.

While Campus Activities Board President Jillian Jorgensen said her group hasn’t had a formal discussion on the matter, she hopes students will consider the programs as an alternative if the proposal is adopted.

The Activities Board hosts, on average, three activities each week for students, including Saturday trips to out-of-state sporting events, movie nights in the IMU, and Night Hawk events.

Night Hawk, get-togethers with themes that last from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., is free to students, but costs the Activities Board between $1,500 to $4,000 per event, which is covered by funds from the Student Activities Office.

“If [21-only] were to happen, we would respond appropriately,” Jorgensen said. “It all depends on funding.”

Funding has been a problem for other groups, such as the Stepping Up Project, which planned programs and policies to reduce high-risk drinking on campus starting in 1996. With time-limited grants, the group has faded away in recent years.

The legacy of its initiatives still lingers on campus with AlcoholEdu, a mandatory online course freshmen complete, and Night Games, sports-based activities hosted once a month.

This Saturday’s Night Games is “tournament night,” when students will be able to compete as teams in volleyball, dodge ball, and badminton.

“We haven’t talked about increasing the number of events we hold,” Allmon said. “It’s a possibility, but it will all depend on the budget.”

Officials at other regent schools have started programs offered on weekdays to curb drinking problems on campus.

Around 10 years ago, University of Northern Iowa officials implemented Thursdaze, a program that provides nonalcoholic activities on Thursdays, a popular night to drink.

The events range from concerts to comedians and movies. Dean of Students Jon Buse said the events have become more popular over the years.

“Even if students choose to go out after these events, we hope it will decrease the overall amount of time they are drinking,” Buse said.

Some universities have a more direct method for helping students find activities.

John Bechtol, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant dean of students, said university officials meet with students who get in trouble with drinking on campus and discuss a list of 50 activities to do in Madison after 10 p.m., including ordering pizza with roommates and renting old movies or having a dance party.

While some UI officials have expressed concern about students drinking in their dorms, resident assistants said they’re already combating the problem.

They plan late-night activities for their floors, and they are encouraged to get UI students involved in liquor-free fun on the weekends. The events are free and funded through alcohol fines collected in the dorms.

“Students will drink if it’s in dorms or houses, whether the bars are open or not,” Slater resident assistant Nick Hunsberger. “I don’t think students who didn’t do it before will start doing it now.”

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