Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Living substance-free and loving it

Late Saturday night, the residents on fourth floor of the Brodhead residence hall were once again causing a commotion when Head Gryphon Jessica Schwab ’08 entered the hall. There, she found an impromptu orchestra in full swing on the substance-free hallway.

This makeshift concert began when one of the students on the hall recognized that many songs have the same chord progression as Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, and to demonstrate, he rhythmically beat an old cardboard tube. One of his hall mates grabbed his African drums and joined in. Soon, other members of the hall joined in, one playing the flute, another his bass guitar, another the trumpet, and still another the piano. The music must have been audible upstairs, because a student from the hall above appeared carrying his didgeridoo.

When Schwab arrived, she surveyed the ensemble. Then she raised her arms over her head and swung them downward with all the grace and finality of a philharmonic orchestra conductor ending a concert. In accord with her request, the musicians stowed their instruments and found a quieter activity.

Musical ensembles, ice skating, sleepless study sessions, late-night storytelling and X-Box battles frequently occupy the nights in this year’s substance-free housing, says Anthony Bisconti ’09, a Business Information Systems major and a substance-free resident.

Bisconti, like all students in substance-free housing, signed an agreement promising to refrain from using addictive substances, such as alcohol or cigarettes, in the hall and to avoid returning to their room if they are intoxicated. In return, he and other like-minded students, 40 of whom live in Brodhead, were placed in housing specifically designated substance-free, which is commonly called sub-free.

The no-drinking policy does not prevent these students from enjoying college.

“People sometimes have this notion of sub-free, the hall of no social life, the hall of students who don’t have any fun,” Anthony says. “We totally don’t agree with that, we think we’re the total opposite.”

Growing a strong community

Over the past few years, substance-free housing for junior and senior students has been phased out, says Christina Bell, Associate Director of Residential Services. Currently, first-year and second-year students who are required to live on-campus can live in substance-free halls, but juniors and seniors cannot. Instead, they can declare their apartments substance-free.

“We found that there was not a large demand for it,” says Bell, who is responsible for placing students. “The students preferred to live in apartments, rather than sub-free.”

Next year, the current university-run substance-free program, renamed Choosing Healthy Options in Community Environments (C.H.O.I.C.E.), will exist only for first-year and second-year students.

As they looked toward their junior year, Bisconti and his friends—Nick Gava ’09, Paul Berruti ’09, and Glenn Laverty ’09—realized that declaring their room to be free of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes was not sufficient. They wanted to maintain the community they developed by living with like-minded people.

“We’ve grown to be such a nice, strong community that we all have a lot in common and yet we all have a lot different,” Berruti says. “We all come from different backgrounds, but because we all have the same link, that we are all substance-free, it gives us something to base our friendship off of. When you have something that important to you, as the basis of the friendship, everything just grows from there.”

Since last year, the students petitioned for a substance-free community that included second-year students as well as juniors and seniors. Bisconti and his friends spoke to the Offices of Residential Services and Residence Life, requesting a living space.

“Where we live is our community,” Gava says. “It’s not like some of these other groups that can have the Women’s Center or LGBTQA (Rainbow Room) who have places on campus that are available to them. Sub-free—it’s where we live.”

Getting ideas from students

The students drafted a proposal describing their ideal living space for next year, and three weeks later, the Office of Residence Life invited the students to participate in its new Upper Class Experience Residential Communities application process.

Beginning next year, students can choose to live in these themed on-campus housing communities. These student-generated communities would allow students with similar values and vision for the university to live together. Unlike other housing on campus, second-year students will not be separated from juniors and seniors.

Susan Mead, Assistant Dean of Students for Residence Life, John McKnight, the Residence Life Coordinator, and Michael Gregorash, Assistant Director for Residential Services, began work last summer to create a process for students to propose upper-class residential communities.

“We were interested in allowing students to bring their ideas to us, rather than faculty, staff and administration telling students what they can offer,” Mead says. Students who want to create a residential community must complete an application stating their community’s purpose, goals and proposed activities.

When Bisconti and his friends received the application, they immediately began filling it out with the input of hall mates who meandered by to share their opinion or a joke. While completing the application, the students also drafted their own contract, which expanded on the agreements of the original substance-free contract.

The students’ vision for next year involves not only the 130 students in the community, but the entire university. They want to promote social activities that do not involve alcohol and encourage safer, responsible drinking for those who do imbibe.

Next year, they want to accomplish that goal by hosting substance-free parties for the entire campus and partnering with Greek Life to encourage safe drinking. They also plan to have a sub-free day, where all members of the substance-free housing community wear neon T-shirts to increase their visibility.

“They [the other students] don’t know that we exist in the numbers that we do. If they think we’re here, they think we’re small or that we don’t do anything,” Gava says.

Bisconti agrees, adding, “If they do know that we exist, they might not realize that it’s one of us, one of their fellow classmates.”

Green and Global

Although it is the largest, the substance-free community is not the only group that plans to take advantage of the new affinity housing option. Mead believes these communities are just the beginning of a campus-wide trend.

“We see this opportunity expanding campus wide, especially as more faculty and staff learn about this opportunity get involved,” she says.

Three other student groups will participate in the Upper Class Experience Housing Communities: Healthy Living, Global Citizenship and the Green House. The second largest group, the Green House has 15 students. The three students in Healthy Living encourage each other to make wholesome lifestyle choices and will live near the Substance-Free Community. The Global Citizenship community will house 12 students as an extension of the Global Citizenship program.

The Green House was created by Nick Kruse, ’08 an archeology major and environmental science minor, and Alice Kodama, ’09, a materials engineering and product science major. The students at the Green House are united in their desire to reduce waste and energy expenditures.

“You can really make a difference in how you live,” Kodama says. “A lot of waste is used and a lot energy is used just in the practices of everyday living.”

The students will make simple adjustments in their lifestyle by using clothing lines, planting vegetable gardens, creating compost bins, offering bikes to their community members, cooking vegetarian dinners once a week, and beginning an intense recycling program.

“We want to serve as an example to show Lehigh that living sustainable is important and should be practiced and that having this house is equally important to the academics,” Kodama says.

Learning through community is exactly what the substance-free group and the other community groups are seeking.

“Not only do we have classroom learning, but we also have learning outside,” Bisconti says. “Through our community, we are learning about other people by interacting with them. It’s such a different dimension than from the classroom.”

--Becky Straw

Posted on Wednesday, March 14, 2007

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