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Saying no to Animal House Substance-free dorms: At UM and across the nation, more students are choosing living quarters free of alcohol and tobacco


COLLEGE PARK -- Andy Mussaw doesn't want beer cans littering his dormitory. He doesn't want drunken hall-mates stumbling into his room late at night. Although he intends to have as much fun as any other freshman at the University of Maryland, he doesn't want anything to do with alcohol.

"I didn't want the constant pressure of someone across the hall drunk all the time and saying 'Here, try it,' " said Mr. Mussaw, a computer science major, sitting in Bel Air dormitory.

So Mr. Mussaw, an 18-year-old from Elkton, has joined a growing number of University of Maryland students who are requesting substance-free housing -- no alcohol, no smoking. More college students across the nation are choosing substance-free housing, and college administrators are racing to meet demand.

"We've had pretty phenomenal growth in that area," said Jan Davidson, assistant director of residence life at the College Park campus, where more than 1,000 students requested substance-free housing this year -- an increase from 120 when the university first offered it in 1993.

While school rules prohibit students younger than 21 from drinking alcohol in the dormitories and from smoking outside of their rooms, students say both are widespread and tolerated. However, on substance-free floors, students not only sign contracts with the university, they make a promise to their hall-mates -- no beer parties, no cigarette butts in the hallway, no getting sick in the bathroom. (Pledges to abstain from drugs are not included because, the university says, drugs are illegal anyway.)

To be sure, the popularity of substance-free housing does not mean most students are abstaining from drinking. In fact, an annual study by the University of Michigan called Monitoring the Future, showed nine out of 10 college students drank alcohol in the past year.

"This is not a movement to confirm life-long nondrinkers," said Alan Levy, director of campus affairs for housing at University of Michigan, which six years ago became one of the first schools to introduce substance-free housing, which 2,000 of its students now choose. "But they chose a residential hall not polluted by the problems typically associated with excess drinking."

Indeed. Sean Fellin, a freshman from Towson who lives one floor below Mr. Mussaw, said he requested substance-free housing to avoid living with a smoker -- not to avoid alcohol.

"I drink excessively," Mr. Fellin said, who displayed as proof a bottle of alcohol that he had hidden in his closet. "A lot of people here do drink. They just do it out of the dorm room."

Many Maryland schools have created substance-free housing in the past five years, including Loyola, Towson and Frostburg State, and administrators at those schools say student demand is growing.

The University of Maryland, which also offers specialty housing for honors and foreign students, has designated two large dormitories, and eight or nine floors spread throughout other dormitories, as substance-free.

Beyond relieving them of problems common to drinking, students said the housing introduced them to classmates with similar interests. Tom Segar, a fifth-year senior and a student adviser who lives on a substance-free floor, said he noticed students were more enthusiastic and involved in student groups, studying and campus activities.

"People who drink are apathetic to what goes on in the building because, to them, things going on off-campus are a lot more interesting," said Mr. Segar.

Still, some students in substance-free housing acknowledged feeling pressure to drink, and feeling slightly awkward when they tell other students they chose housing where no one drinks. "They look at me funny and think there is something wrong with me because I don't drink," said Jacob King, a freshman who lives across the hall from Mr. Mussaw. "They have trouble understanding why somebody wouldn't enjoy getting drunk."

Other students scoffed at the thought of living in substance-free housing. Henry Clifford, a freshman who lives in regular housing and hopes to have some parties during the year, said he would not move into substance-free housing because he was afraid "I'd be with a bunch of bookworms."

However, Mr. Clifford and one of his hall-mates are seeing the consequences of their housing choice. Last weekend, someone vomited in the bathroom. After a floor meeting, they reluctantly volunteered to clean and disinfect the mess.

And not every student in substance-free housing is happy to be there. Some said their parents, who also review the housing forms, "encouraged" the decision.

"I wish I was not in substance-free housing," said Ari Mahler, a freshman from Pittsburgh who has smoked for four years. He appreciates the quietness of the dorm -- but not its restrictions. "My parents requested a no-smoking dorm. It's a big argument."

But for Mr. Mussaw, who suffers from asthma, there is no argument. And while he was more than happy to live in substance-free housing, his mother was particularly pleased.

"I was thrilled when I got the [housing] forms," Cindy Mussaw said. "It's not the reason you're supposed to go to school. They have enough pressure to deal with."

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