Faculty involvement is an essential component of creating healthy campus environments. Although most faculty do not consider themselves change agents in the effort to foster safe and healthy campus environments, they are in fact well-positioned to support healthy decision making by students and serve as “gatekeepers” on the lookout for those who may be in trouble with alcohol, other drugs, depression, or other problems. Faculty frequently interact on a one-on-one basis with students, form relationships with them, and are in a position to gauge whether a student may be experiencing difficulties or distress.
In teaching an entire class or lecture hall, faculty send messages to students that may involve substance use and abuse, and as such, can help to foster an environment that supports healthy and responsible decision-making by students, and one where violence and other acts are not supported or condoned.
In many instances, messages about alcohol and other drug use are presented to students in an informal manner rather than part of the curriculum. A lecturer may make reference to his own college experience, glamorizing the drinking of his youth. As an aside, a professor may make an assumption about the behavior of students in her class, wondering aloud how late the class was up partying the previous night. These comments, while seeming innocuous, can “normalize” unhealthy behavior and allow students to believe that “everyone parties,” when in fact this may not be true. Instead, faculty may consider ways to incorporate healthy messages about alcohol, other drugs, and other decisions into their curricula and refrain from informal comments that can support unhealthy decisions.
Faculty can also support healthy student behaviors and mitigate against unhealthy behaviors through administrative or structural measures. For instance, Friday classes and Thursdays evening classes, while unpopular with both students and faculty, can work against the tendency for students to treat Thursday evenings as weekend nights. Also, faculty may consider scheduling tests, exams, and term papers in order to mitigate against late week partying.
Faculty may also consider requiring volunteer or service learning as part of their curriculum. These experiences provide multiple benefits for students, allowing them insight into professional experiences relating to their area of academic interest, providing them with an added level of fulfillment and engagement in their college studies, and providing a mechanism for them to network with potential employers, possibly leading to post-graduate job offers. Each of these benefits can serve to work against students’ unhealthy decision-making, and at a basic level, these experiences present an opportunity loss for students to party.
Faculty can support alcohol and other drug prevention efforts outside of their teaching roles in multiple ways. For instance, they may consider serving on a campus task force related to prevention, providing the critical perspective of a “frontline” constituency that interacts on a regular basis with students and is attuned to their interests. Faculty can also conduct research in support of prevention, whether on student behaviors, the campus environment and its support of student behaviors, or other aspects of the campus environment like policy measures and their enforcement.
Faculty can also offer their unique services, knowledge, or skills to support prevention efforts. Examples include communications or design skills to create flyers, brochures, or other campus prevention materials; or evaluation, research or statistical expertise to help examine whether current prevention efforts are effective.
Faculty can support their colleagues and members of the campus administration by encouraging faculty to take similar steps. They may educate their colleagues on how negative messages can be misinterpreted by students, and to be more mindful of comments regarding alcohol, other drug use – even informal ones. While many faculty support alcohol and other prevention efforts on campus, this may be overlooked or unknown to senior campus administrators. If the campus is considering measures to reduce the problems of alcohol and other drug use by students, faculty can let administrators know that they support these programs or policies.
Faculty are considered a key “gatekeeper” constituency on campus to spot students who may be in trouble with alcohol, other drugs, or who may be experiencing emotional distress, depression, or other mental health problems. Yet many faculty members may be uninformed about the signs of distress, or if they are aware of a student in trouble, they may not know how to handle these situations. Some may be reluctant to take action with a student who appears in trouble, thinking they are then in some manner responsible for such students. Knowing the signs of problems is just the first step – faculty must then know how to refer students in need of services to others who are more qualified to identify, intervene and possibly treat troubled students. Many campuses offer a diverse range of services and opportunities for students in need of assistance, from academic support groups and services, psychological counseling, and alcohol problem identification, intervention, and treatment. Therefore, health services and counseling staff can make efforts to educate faculty about how to identify and manage students in crisis or those who may be struggling with the pressures of college life, and how to best refer them to the appropriate services that exist.
Possibly the best way that faculty can assist students – supporting healthy decision-making, helping them address academic challenges and other pressures, or enriching their college experience – is by making personal connections with students. Faculty can provide opportunities to make these connections by inviting students over for a celebration or perhaps organizing routine outings with students, either in a social setting or visiting a place of interest that relates to the content or curriculum they are teaching. These kinds of extracurricular experiences not only advance a student’s learning and interest in their academic pursuits, but provide support for them emotionally, creating connections with adults and mentors in addition to their regular social networks.