Teaching assistants, typically graduate students hired to help undergrads with their courses, are staples on college campuses. Indiana University shyness expert Bernardo J. Carducci said social assistants, people hired to help new students with their conversation IQ and social skills, should become staples, as well.
New students, said Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at IU Southeast, are no different than the estimated 40 percent of the population that is shy. The transition to college, however, can exacerbate this vulnerability, so students turn to an easy conversation-maker -- booze.
"Usually universities have organizers, not facilitators," Carducci said. "You bring these people together, but you don't help them connect. You don't have people who go around and say, 'Steve, this is Rachel.' You need to do this at a much more personal level. That's what social facilitators at keggers do. They're walking around handing you drinks."
Carducci says binge drinking is the fruit of the fear and anxiety new students can experience, not the result of them enjoying their new-found independence.
"What this really is all about is the process of transition, the process of change," Carducci said. "Change brings uncertainty. Uncertainty brings anxiety. They drink out of fear. They drink out of anxiety. They drink out of loneliness. They don't talk about how afraid they are because they think everyone will think they're a weenie. So, they conform. They talk about drinking -- where did they go, what did they do, where are they going this week. It gives students a topic of conversation. What begins to happen is they drink to get accepted."
Carducci offers the following suggestions:
» Teach them to make connections. Carducci, a psychology professor and author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, said new students often have low levels of conversation intelligence. Universities should consider organizing friendship circles, where they bring students together on a regular basis, or including class sections that help students develop conversational skills and other social skills. If the university organizes a freshman picnic, for example, it needs to go the extra mile by having people mingle and make introductions.
» A rational appeal. University administrators need to acknowledge the dynamic by letting students know the root of their drinking is in loneliness, fear and anxiety. "Tell them you know they're drinking because they want to be liked and accepted. Don't make it a moral or emotional appeal."
» Reality check. Students have a drinking problem if they drink alcohol to feel relaxed at social functions or comfortable dancing or talking with others or if they pre-drink -- drink before they go to social functions so they "feel" more relaxed and comfortable when they arrive.
» Avoid drinking games. Drinking games might look fun, but they are designed to get drinkers drunk as quickly as possible. When people are drunk, they are easier to control and become more susceptible to everything from theft to sexual assault to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
» Lonely? Find people with similar interests. Student groups focusing on a wide range of interests can be found on university campuses, providing students with a way to indulge their hobbies and interests while meeting similarly minded people.
» Volunteer. Students focus less on their own challenges with their transition to school when they focus on the needs of others. Volunteering puts students in a low stress situation because typically it's their time that is desired, not special skills. It lets them meet other people with similar interests.
» Get a job. Part-time jobs can help students with school by making them more organized and helping them meet people. Carducci says working up to 20 hours a week should not hurt grades. If the job is on campus, it can provide students with contacts and experience in areas related to their major.
» Be a host to humanity. Take the initiative by talking to people in the same boat -- new students. Introduce people. "It all boils down to taking the attention off of yourself and getting involved in the lives of others," Carducci said.
» Parents, think "inoculation." Parents shouldn't be afraid of talking to their children about limited alcohol consumption and about the anxiety and fear they could experience when they begin college. Let them know everyone feels that way and that they should not confuse drinking with bravado, Carducci said. "It's like having the drug and the sex talk -- this is what's likely to happen to you."