July 18, 2008 — The question popped up on the screen in the front of the Newcomb Hall Ballroom:
"How would you describe the social scene for University of Virginia undergrads?"
Is it "Sobriety Central"? Populated mostly by light drinkers? A mix of abstainers and imbibers? Or is it a full-out, full-time, bacchanal?
That's more than a rhetorical question, and one that's being posed to incoming first-year students — and their parents — throughout the summer as part of the U.Va. student orientation program. And thanks to instant audience-polling technology usually seen on TV game shows, they get to answer. Anonymously.
The interactive polling system is being deployed as part of a presentation, "U.Va. Students: Is Everybody Drinking?," offered for the first time this year by Susan Bruce, director of U.Va.'s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. Throughout the 45-minute talk, Bruce poses multiple-choice questions to the students and their parents, who are seated separately to encourage candor. They push a button on a pocket calculator-sized device and their responses appear instantly as part of Bruce's PowerPoint presentation.
Bruce is repeating her presentation at each of 11 two-day orientation sessions held throughout the summer. About 3,700 incoming students, including 400 transfer students, are expected to attend one of the sessions before they conclude Aug. 22.
Besides Bruce's presentation, there are sessions on U.Va.'s honor system, student life, academic opportunities, Greek life, technology, money matters and health and wellness. Students may take placement tests, obtain identification cards, receive academic advising and register for classes, have yearbook photos taken, tour classroom buildings and learn about student service groups.
Alcohol issues once were covered as part of a general health and wellness session, Bruce said, but received their own time slot on the busy orientation schedule at the recommendation of the University's Advisory Committee on Alcohol and Substance Abuse.
The idea to incorporate the handheld "clickers" came from a similar presentation Bruce saw at Longwood University several years ago. The lecturer handed out pen-and-paper surveys, compiled the results overnight and incorporated them into her lecture the next day.
"Finally, the technology is to the point where this program can be integrated with PowerPoint," Bruce said. She can even save the polling data from all 11 sessions for later use, she added.
The clickers cost about $6,000 and are funded by the Dean of Students and Anheuser-Busch as part of that company's establishment of the Social National Social Norms Institute at U.Va. They are similar to those employed to "poll the audience" during the game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Some professors are using similar technology in their lectures.
At one of Bruce's recent sessions, the "social scene" question drew similar responses from parents and students. All of the students and 80 percent of the parents chose the "mix of abstainers and drinkers" response, which is the most accurate, Bruce said. A later question-and-answer revealed that about 35 percent of first-year students report that they have not used alcohol in the past month.
Much of Bruce's presentation is aimed at combating the "Animal House" stereotype of college life, using hard data gleaned from an annual student survey.
"Our whole purpose is to look at the perception of what alcohol use is, and also what the reality is," Bruce said.
The approach is far from a "just-say-no" message that students would instantly tune out. Instead, Bruce lays out some possible health consequences of heavy drinking and offers reassurance to students who choose to drink moderately — or not at all.
Does "everyone" carry fake IDs to purchase alcohol? Actually, less than 8 percent of incoming students have ever had or used one, and fewer than one in four obtain a fake ID while at U.Va. Are students having multiple sexual partners (one side-effect of heavy drinking)? Survey results show that 79 percent of first-years had either zero or one sexual partner in the past year.
Bruce concludes the presentation with an overview of University policies on alcohol and substance abuse, as well as a listing of resources, including a weekly e-mail highlighting upcoming non-alcoholic events.
Despite the sensitive subject matter, reaction to the interactive presentation has been "almost universally positive," Bruce said. Parents seem to have a pretty realistic idea of the alcohol environment their children will be entering; in fact, the data from the clicker surveys show that, if anything, students may be drinking slightly less than their parents believe.
"Things have changed since I went to college," said Lawrence Peseskey of Leonia, N.J., whose only child will attend U.Va. this fall. "There's a lot more emphasis on student responsibility and parental involvement."
Peseskey graduated from Cornell University in 1978. "I was a little bit surprised at what the results say about the lack of sexual behavior, the lack of alcohol abuse," he said. "It's good for parents and students to know that you're not abnormal if you're not getting drunk every Saturday night, or not having sex every Saturday night."