Al-Salem ’17: Being sober in college

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Before coming to college, I thought I was unsure of many things but one: I would never drink alcohol. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where drinking wasn’t a part of the culture, so I definitely attribute that lifestyle to my pre-college mentality. But I never expected to find myself dealing with conflicting qualms about drinking until I thought my sobriety put my social life at risk.

As teenagers, we are taught that it is wrong to instigate or fall for peer pressure. But it is always depicted as this blatant action where someone is urging someone to do something: pushing a drink into her hand or mocking her for not holding a solo cup. But the way drinking actually works on college campuses is a lot more emblematic of peer pressure than any obvious bullying shown on PSA clips.

It’s important to me that I first preface the following sentiment with two key facts: I absolutely do not judge those who drink, and my experience is not intended to voice anyone else’s. I know a few people who do not drink and appear to have as great a time at social outings and clubs as anyone else.

My doubt about being unwilling to start drinking began late in my freshman spring semester when a close friend who also didn’t drink left campus for the semester. Without her company during the weekends at events, I felt a disconnect between myself and the social scene. Everyone always says it must be terrible to be the sober one at a party, but I had never really understood that until I was the only sober one at a party. When I had a friend along with me, I did not sense the isolation between those who drank and those who didn’t.

I do not think that people who drink at parties actively try to make those who abstain from alcohol uncomfortable or neglected. I don’t think anyone wants to make someone feel excluded, but it is only natural to get along with people who are at the same energy or excitement level. The person who stands back as everyone else gathers around to do vodka shots at a pregame seems not to be enjoying the night as much as everyone else. To some, the person who does not drink becomes a burden or floats around aimlessly.

The response to a situation like the one I described would be, “Oh, then just don’t go to parties with alcohol.” This presumes the fact that college isn’t a place where drinking is the beating heart of the social scene. If you decide to forgo parties, you are forced to cut your friend group essentially in half. If they ask you to hang out and you decline, you are labeled as a hermit or, worse, flaky. I cannot emphasize how hard it is to explain to people with whom I want to spend time that I value their friendship but that I must also take into account how I almost always feel after college parties — irrelevant and unwanted.

I focus college parties because I have found that outside of college, drinking isn’t such a frantic, be-all-end-all of a party. I have gone to parties where everyone ended up drunk, but it was still a great time. I found that because the goal was not to get drunk, the attitude toward alcohol wasn’t that of “I can’t have fun or enjoy myself without alcohol.”

Similarly, this more mature mentality toward drinking also seems more prevalent in international communities, especially of students raised in countries with younger drinking ages, where drinking is less taboo than it is in the United States. When these students come to college, their attitude toward drinking is thus a lot more lax.

Like everyone, I have grown a lot since coming to Brown, and I have found myself accepting my sobriety as a sort of closed gate to a certain college social life. But for anyone else who may have also struggled with this, it is important to know it’s okay to have doubts, and it’s okay to decide to drink — as long as you do it for the right reasons and not to fit a certain status quo.

And if you decide not to drink and you find yourself exiled from a community, remember that those who really value you will make time for you if they understand the drinking scene isn’t your scene. You will eventually find your place in your own social scene. I promise.

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at


  1. I alway knew I didn’t like the party scene. But freshman year, I thought, well, I’ll go and try these party things with my friends, gotta try new things. I tried to enjoy them, but I never did. I promptly stopped going. I haven’t gone in years, and I haven’t missed a thing.

    My friends can enjoy themselves with and without alcohol. I don’t feel left out because I know it’s not something I like to do. I’ve also found that people whose social lives are centered around alcohol are unforgivably dull anyway.

  2. ShadrachSmith says:

    Beer is good. Beer is a social lubricant on an anthropological level. Beer teaches a lesson about moderation (to all who can learn) in a personalized way that only hugging a toilet can convey.

    Alcohol is a drug, and as with all drugs the difference between use and abuse is just one little syllable. That is a deep thought and worth contemplation. I would argue that – for most people – a beer or two makes other people’s company more enjoyable. I see that as a good thing…a social benefit.

    Most of the most intolerant social groups prohibit alcohol, and that may not be a coincidence. If you can put up with people and be pleasant in social situations w/o consuming any alcohol…that is your business. That they need a beer or two to put up with you, that is their business 🙂

    • A beer or two? Have you been on or near a college campus recently? Most who drink consume far more than two beers in an evening. At least half are drunk to the point of incoherence not far into the evening.

      • ShadrachSmith says:

        And that voluntary behavior by other people should be controlled by you because…?

        Has it occured to you that Beer will soon make manifest the errors of overindulgence? Beer is a useful tool in teaching the folly of overindulgence. Too much beer is a self-correcting error for all but the few who are doomed to lifelong abuse of whatever drug is available.

        Tend to your own social skills 🙂

  3. Life’s filled with many paths
    which one should I take?
    When the choice comes, I won’t run
    I’ll be thinking straight!

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