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Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Friday, 3 October 2008 12:13 UK

Glass fully empty

Oxford students carousing in 1824
Academic heavy drinking is a long tradition

By Dominic Koole

Students have a reputation for enjoying regularly drinking themselves into stupefaction, but there are a growing number who are deciding not to touch a drop. So how hard is it to be teetotal at university?

Freshers' week is a period of intense blandishments for 18-year-olds. Surrounded by parties and pubs and under intense pressure to make new friends, most have alcohol as their social lubricant of choice.

Clubs and societies attempt to gather them in with the promise of the messiest pub crawl or the most free drinks.

It is very difficult to find a girlfriend as most of my friends find girls on nights out, whereas I do not
David Wiley, teetotaller

Oliver Keane enjoyed a very different kind of freshers' week. Alcohol poisoning from a particularly heavy drinking session several months ago persuaded Oliver to go teetotal.

"I didn't drink a drop and wasn't even tempted," the 18-year-old Birmingham University student says.

Socialising is a key part of freshers' week, a time to make new friends during what is most teenagers first experience of living away from home. In many cases, freshers are nervous about speaking to new people, and much of the easiest opportunity to do so comes on alcohol-fuelled nights out. It's a tumult of drinks for a pound and fancy dress as standard.

Constant pressure

Without a dose of Dutch courage, a week spent socialising with a group of complete strangers may seem like a daunting experience to some. And teetotallers can soon find themselves feeling a bit left out.

After three days at Aberystwyth University, David Wiley tired of the constant pressure to drink and decided to leave.

Students at St Andrews cover themselves in foam
Hijinks, alcohol and socialising are inextricably linked

"Flatmates were always knocking on my door, saying 'you coming out', 'wanna get hammered?'," he says.

He now lives at home and commutes to Wolverhampton University. He has yet to set foot in the students' union bar, as most events revolve around cheap alcohol, and conversations among his fellow students frustrate him as they are typically centred on how much everyone had to drink the night before.

A non-drinker after observing the mental and physical effects of alcohol on people close to him, David says he now finds it more difficult to make friends.

"It is also very difficult to find a girlfriend as most of my friends find girls on nights out, whereas I do not. Plus people see it as a bit weird that I don't drink, which appears to put them off."

Comprehension struggle

"Lots of people think drinking is essential to get in the mood," says Oliver, an 18-year-old geography student. "Everyone finds it harder to get on the dance floor without having a few drinks inside them and talking to strangers is certainly more difficult."

And then there is explaining why he doesn't drink - because it is frequently remarked upon. "People keep saying that they want to take me out to get drunk, but don't understand that I actually don't want to."

The peers of the student teetotallers struggle to comprehend how they can be having fun at all.

Oliver Keane
It's the atmosphere that makes a night out, not the booze
Oliver Keane

Ricky Hilton arrived at university a recovering alcoholic who had had to give up drinking completely.

Before starting at Leicester, he exchanged messages with other freshers. When they found out he was a non-drinker, most thought this "boring" and wondered how he would make the most of the freshers' experience.

But Oliver says being teetotal is not as people imagine. "People think that if you don't drink you will just end up standing in the corner of a club by yourself.

"It's not like that at all. You can have just as much fun and you get a lot of respect from people. It's the atmosphere that makes a night out, not the booze."

Moderation problem

And the teetotallers should take heart from the knowledge that they are not alone. A study last year at Lancaster University noted that there was evidence the number of teetotallers aged 16-24 was rising.

Of course, even for most people who are vehemently against binge drinking, the norm is drinking in moderation rather than giving up completely. But for a lot of student teetotallers it is difficult to envision going on a night out, having a drink or two and then stopping. And then there are those who simply do not enjoy even the smallest dose.

Student drinks beer through funnel
In the US, student binge drinking has its epicentre at Spring Break

And for Oliver, there are clear benefits for drinking nothing at all. He cites health benefits, saving money and not making a fool of himself on a nightly basis. He makes the most out of his days while his friends are soothing their hangovers.

Of course, there are plenty of non-alcoholic things to do, says Ellie Reyland, welfare officer at Manchester University Students' Union. Joining the hiking club or the drama society might offer a non pub-centric avenue for socialising.

And those wanting to be teetotal should be strong, Ms Reyland says.

"If you are comfortable around others drinking, but choose not to drink yourself, then don't allow others to pressure you into it."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I've never been a big drinker - I admit A-Levels results night and other certain occasions are a bit of a blur, but it's never been a major thing for me to get hammered. Being 18, there are a lot of nights out and parties, and although there are people embarrassing themselves and getting absolutely paralytic, I've never found it an issue not to be one of them. It doesn't leave me feeling excluded, plus I'm able to remember the night before. I totally support the notion that it's the atmosphere, not the drink that makes a good night, and despite popular opinion, there are a lot of other young people who share the notion.
Eve, Somerset

I am a fashion student in London and art students are notorious for getting crazy. I'm a Muslim and have never had a drink. My flatmates were drinking all the time and there was this one girl who was always out at different clubs. She was so drunk one night, that she put some chips in the oven and fell asleep - I was awake, luckily, to smell the smoke and find I couldn't see two meters ahead of me because the hob was burning. I am so glad I followed my religion which bans drink for the right reasons. You lose respect of yourself. You lose respect of everybody around you, and most importantly you are harming your health.
Sean, London

This seems to suggest that it is impossible for drinkers and non-drinkers to be friends at university, something which is simply not true. I don't drink and went through university perfectly happily being the only non-drinker I knew. I felt fully involved in the "university experience" and don't believe I missed out on anything. Even now, every time I start a new job I get the same joke "You don't drink? Well give it a week here and you will!" I laugh and when it gets to Friday, I socialise, have fun, laugh some more and stick to orange juice and no one bats an eyelid.
Tanya, London

I dislike the feeling of being drunk, but enjoy a drink in moderation. However, when out with a group I have found it much more difficult to drink moderately, than not to drink at all. It's almost as if people can understand a decision not to drink, but cannot understand someone who drinks, but not to fall over.
GC, Chesham

I am a non-drinker. This is not because of my religion (Islam) which prevents me from drinking (there are quite a few Muslims who drink) but the fact that it has clear benefits, both on my health and also my wallet. Fresher week is simply built around the whole idea of getting hammered and having a "good time". However when people come to lectures and start bragging about how they had this many pints, shots etc, were sick, how they ended here or there and couldn't remember how it happened really confuses me. I think it's rather sad that people think that drinking is the only real way to socialise. Although me not drinking = me being an outsider, I don't mind. I have a few like-minded friends - we play pool along with a few non-alcoholic beverages, and REMEMBER the fun we have.
Uz, England

While being a non-drinker I respect the fact that people also choose to drink. I've heard many other non-drinkers go on about how they wished people would respect their non-drinking stance but very few of them can respect or tolerate when others chose to drink. Now being in my 2nd year of university, I feel the pressure to drink is even less than what it was last year. The amount of drinking that goes on in first year seems to derive from an image that a lot of sixth formers have before they go to university. And I can tell you that I felt left out a lot more in sixth form than I do now because of my non-drinking stance.
Cheryl, Edinburgh

As a student in the 60s, who liked the taste of many alcoholic drinks but hated to be under their influence, I was often made to feel like an outsider because, whilst I would have one drink, I wouldn't join in binge drinking sessions. It didn't stop at just feeling awkward, I was sometimes verbally abused. Buying rounds was a major problem as my refusal to join in, even though I explained that I would only be drinking one, was seen as meanness. Buying 10 drinks for the group when I didn't want anybody to buy me one seemed to be ridiculous. It puzzles me still that if I refuse an offered drink of coffee it is socially acceptable, but if I decline to drink alcohol with someone it's seen as a personal insult.
Photographics, Nottingham

Who said this starts at university? I am so sick of everyone at college being all about getting smashed. I feel like I am the only one in my college, perhaps even my own age-group whose whole life doesn't revolve around booze. I decided not to have an 18th party because I don't see why I should pay for all my friends to get smashed, I shall be leaving on holiday instead. And I think I will have a better time because of it.
Steph, Lancashire

As a third year student, I find it funny to watch the freshers drink themselves silly, and I was there once, drinking all the time. I had a fantastic time, and the drink was merely the catalyst to making the friends who I now hold so dear. Regardless of how many people say "you can have fun without drink" (which is true), you can always have more fun with it, in my opinion. It breaks ice, it makes the shy confident, it makes talking to the opposite sex easier, and if you can't have a drink at 18, 19 and into 20s, and enjoy it while we won't feel the aftermath as badly as someone in their 30s, then we don't deserve our youth.
Joe, Uxbridge

I used to drink nothing or have a 1-2 drink max rule when I arrived at uni as a fresher last year. No one has ever pressured me to drink within my friendship group, the two societies I belong to or any of my flatmates. I find conversations are never just about drinking, students so have other areas of interest and the generalization of the article upsets me. Although student culture does include alcohol, it is unfair to say that alcohol is student culture only. Many non-students engage in binge activity as do all age groups. Most students prioritise their degree over a nightlife.
Louisa, Worcester

I started a course of medication at university which meant I couldn't drink alcohol. It served to make me feel like an outsider, as though I wasn't properly included in my friends' affairs and activities whilst they were drunk. I found it incredibly difficult and ended up isolated from what were previously very good friends. It was quite sobering also to look at a group of drunk students from the outside, and think "grow up", only to realise I was the same just a couple of weeks before. Now that I'm in full time employment with bills to pay I despair at students whose only concern is getting money for alcohol - a group which includes many of my friends unfortunately.
CMD, Bradford

I've been a teetotaller since I was 18 (now 30) and commuted to university everyday and didn't really feel a part of freshers week, nor the whole student life, not that I was particularly bothered. I've had some odd looks from people in the past when I've said that I didn't drink but now that I am older, I think people respect the fact that I choose not to drink. It's definitely the atmosphere and your friends that counts and not the booze on a night out. To those who feel pressured to drink and don't want to, don't stand for it. They've made their choice to drink and that's fine, but they must also respect your decision to not to drink. It just means that you need to find other means to make like-minded friends.
Eve , Wales

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