Through my crisis management counseling over the last 22 years, I’ve become an expert in what not to do in college.
Most of my students are referred to me by other independent educational consultants (IECs) who aren’t sure how to support a student in trouble. I help students transfer or get into grad school after they are suspended or expelled, but if you can avoid becoming my client, you should. Here’s a short review of the kinds of problems that bring families to my office, with advice addressed to your college-bound students.
Your mom is not coming to college with you. That means you are the only person there whose job it is to look out for you. It’s never safe to drink your good judgment away. Most college students use alcohol moderately or not at all, and you can be one of them. If you want to test your limits, the rational way to do that is to have one more drink than you had last time, not six more.
One of the good ways that college is different from high school is that people mostly have better things to do than worry about whether you are drinking or not. If you want to join in games like beer pong or “I Never” but fill your cup with Sprite, chances are good that no one will care.
A good half of my students who get into trouble for dealing drugs never planned to “deal” drugs, and in some cases didn’t even realize they were “dealing” drugs. These stories usually begin when a student like Cole, from a state like California, New York, or Colorado, heads off to a school like Emory, Rice, or Tulane. These schools feel just like the cosmopolitan cities back home—except for the weather, you’d never know you were in the South. So after winter break, Cole brings his stash back to college with him. He gets high with his buddies, who Venmo him a few bucks to defray the cost. But that’s not how the police will see it when they uncover the chain of possession behind the joint in someone else’s apartment. They’re going to see it as interstate transport and sale of drugs, i.e. trafficking. If you’re convicted of drug trafficking in Georgia or Texas or Louisiana, you are going to prison. Think hard about college location if you plan to continue your recreational drug use.
Similarly, your Adderall or Ativan that was prescribed for you is legal for you. If you share it with friends, you’re breaking the law, and you may end up being treated like a drug dealer.
Just like my drug dealing students, most of my clients who commit academic dishonesty didn’t have a nefarious plan. They got behind in an important class—especially if they were premeds—and they panicked. Remote learning touched off a frenzy of additional cheating, which illustrates that this is mostly a crime of opportunity. That means that you can avoid this kind of trouble by thinking ahead. I’m not talking about making a study plan so that you have plenty of time to earn the grades you want, though that’s a good idea too. I mean thinking about the kind of person you want to be. Think now, before you have any assignments due, about how you will handle an impossible deadline or an exam you expect to fail. You don’t just need integrity to handle that right way; you need bravery. Resolve now that if you’re staring down an academic disappointment, you’re going to face it like an adult. You can come back from a bad grade. It’s a lot harder to come back from a suspension and being labeled a cheater. It is no fun disclosing this history on a med school or law school application, as you will have to do.
It’s your responsibility to know the sexual rules of your college. In many cases, I think these rules are poorly written, and maybe you will agree with me. It doesn’t matter. You will have to follow them.
Think now about what you want your sex life to look like in college. You are more likely to have good experiences if you make a plan and seek out what you want. I see a lot of regret and pain, as well as derailed educations, that might have been avoidable. Do you want hookups? Do you want relationships? Do you want to wait for true love? No one can answer these questions but you.
Ninety percent of the sexual assault cases I see involve alcohol. Often there is no allegation that anyone passed out, used force, or even said no. These cases typically involve a complainant who was walking, talking, texting, and appeared to consent to the sex. Yet after the fact, the complainant feels that they were too intoxicated to consent, with awful emotional consequences to the complainant and severe disciplinary consequences for the accused.
So the most powerful thing you can do to avoid entanglement in a sexual misconduct matter is to separate sex and alcohol. It’s not fair that you have to meet a higher standard than the adults running your college, because they don’t have to follow this rule. But my advice stands. If you’ve been drinking, postpone sexual contact until you’re sober. Don’t have sexual contact with anyone who’s been drinking, even if they seem fine, and even if you’ve seen them drink a lot more in the past.
A lot of the anti-sexual-assault education today is focused on bystander intervention: if you see drunk classmates hooking up, you should stop them. That’s great…be a good bystander. But you should never count on bystanders to protect you either from assault or from an accusation.
Of course, you shouldn’t just aspire to avoid committing assault (though that’s a good place to start). You should aspire for your partner to have a great time, every time. Talk to them! Ask questions. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about what you’re doing, that’s a sign that you might be happier if you didn’t do it…and that you might get into trouble if you do.
Another best practice is to be kind. I can’t know whether my students who’ve been accused of assault did what they were accused of. I do know that even the ones who are sure they are innocent look back and admit they could have been a lot nicer. Don’t dump someone by text. Don’t sleep with their roommate. Act like their feelings matter. There’s no downside.
Tell Your Parents
A lot of my students who get expelled would never have been expelled if they’d just told their parents. I get it—I’m 46 and married, and I still don’t want to talk to my mom about my sex life. And of course, you should trust your judgment if you fear you’ll get abused or disowned. But most of the time, my students hide the truth because they fear disappointing their parents. Don’t let that fear be the reason you get expelled (you really don’t want to have THAT conversation). A college discipline process is way too serious for a young person to handle alone or with whatever “advisor” the college may assign you. You can’t talk your way out of this. If you get in trouble, tell your parents right away and get a lawyer.
Have a great time in college, make smart decisions, and put me out of business!
By Hanna Stotland, JD, IECA (IL)
Hanna Stotland can be reached at [email protected]