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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Grinnell College fails to provide a truly substance-free experience



I recently found myself at the foot of a bed watching as a team of hospital staff ran a code on someone who had overdosed on heroin. I should say that I am a premed student and I have a weekend job at an emergency room in Des Moines, so watching someone receive advanced life support is not out of the ordinary — that is, until the patient is a classmate from high school. It is never comfortable to watch someone knock on death’s door. However, realizing that the person is the same age as you and your friends takes the emotions up to a new level, and you find yourself taking extra time to process what happened. In that extra time, I ended up thinking about my time at the College and reflecting on how poorly the school handles students who wish to be substance-free.

I do not mind a little bit (emphasis on “little”) of alcohol consumption, but I largely abhor illicit substance use, especially after 18 months of employment in an ER. I fully recognize that I see the ugliest side of substance use and abuse, but it is hard to remove my experience in the ER from what I see on campus on the rare occasion that I spend a weekend in Grinnell. I by no means think of Grinnell students as drug addicts, but I nonetheless see the similarities at parties in high school and college and think about what paths people could eventually venture down, regardless of intention, much like my former classmate. For that reason, I question what Grinnell College does to encourage responsibility and support students who choose not to partake in substance use.

I want to start with housing. I spent my first two years at Grinnell in dorms that were substance-free in every sense of the word except for in reality. You can easily do everything the town of Grinnell offers by the end of September during your freshman year. Running out of options to keep students busy means that the definition of substance-free inevitably transforms to, “as long as my door is closed it’ll be okay” a few months into the semester. I could have made this work for a year, but since Residence Life is hell-bent to keep people on campus for their money, there is nowhere to escape. The school puts up a decent façade by hosting various substance-free events, but at the end of the day if I must hear the freshman two rooms over chugging vodka or can check out my room over the summer and find it littered with beer bottles before Facilities Management cleaned up, can it really be called substance-free housing?

Beyond the failings of Residence Life, as a student athlete, I am met with a mandatory team meeting with a representative from the Wellness department every fall and a few surveys throughout the year regarding attitudes around substance use and other topics. Frankly, apart from avoiding litigation, I cannot figure out why the College even bothers. I do not see attitudes change afterwards and as I discussed earlier, it honestly seems that the College does not care if students have a substance free place to call home.

I know that College President Raynard Kington already outwardly opposes substance use on campus, but I want him to look at the systems in place and recognize both the counter-productive approach that Grinnell College takes and that he ignores the heart of the problem regarding substance-free living. See that you do not truly offer substance free students a place to live because it is enforced by the abstract concept of self-governance, which everyone says is dead. See that no matter how many hours you waste with representatives from different departments, preexisting attitudes run deep enough that a couple meetings will change nothing. Grinnell College fails to offer substance-free housing to students who desire it. I am disappointed in the College’s failure to provide each student with a safe and comfortable environment to live in, and their inability to recognize and own up to their failings.

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