The Deconstruction of First-Year, Sub-Free Housing

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(Elaine Vilorio)– There are many myths surrounding the culture of first-year, substance-free dormitories, particularly among the first-years who don’t live in them. Maybe it has to do with the fact we’ve only been here for a couple of weeks. From the typical first-year’s perspective (the typical first-year being someone not living in sub-free housing), that span of time might not be sufficient enough to gauge sub-free living. As a resident of a sub-free dorm (Williston—inarguably the coolest first-year dorm), I’ve often found myself having to clarify what living in sub-free housing really means. Here, I tackle the misconceptions in the pursuit of a better understanding.

Myth #1: All first-years in substance-free housing are substance-free.

Obviously, there is a higher concentration of non-drinkers and non-smokers in substance-free housing. But, inhabitants who drink and smoke exist. Some people simply checked “no preference” on their housing questionnaire and ended up in sub-free housing. Some people’s drug-related views changed between the time of the housing questionnaire and their arrival at Amherst. I personally chose substance-free because I wanted to be guaranteed a calm environment. Some of my dorm mates cite the same reason. It’s comforting to know that there’s a low likelihood of someone raucously stumbling home drunk at, say, 3 a.m.

Myth #2: People in sub-free housing are uptight.

This myth assumes you have to drink or smoke to have fun. Just as you can have fun drinking or smoking, you can have fun not doing either. While I sound like a corny and obvious DARE ad, the concept of fun is worth touching upon. Some people abstain from drinking or smoking because of past hurtful experiences. I have dorm mates whose families have histories of alcoholism or general drug abuse. One friend has panic attacks at the smell of alcohol; it brings up too many painful memories. Does the effect of these traumas make them sticks-in-the-mud? They don’t feel comfortable drinking or smoking; they choose to live in a place where instances of drinking or smoking are relatively few; they choose a place where there are drug-free options to have fun because these do, indeed, exist. My preoccupation with technicalities aside, this validates the existence of a sub-free designation (recall all first-year housing is, in legality, substance-free).

Myth #3: Sub-free housing is divisive.

If, at this point in the year, I had the option of re-choosing a first-year dorm, I’d choose to remain at Williston in a heartbeat. Almost overlooked, Williston Dormitory stands next to North, ever small, ever cozy, ever quaint. The rooms aren’t the biggest and the architecture isn’t the grandest. Instead, Williston has a more precious characteristic: an unbreakable sense of community. Some people joke that our dorm is a cult (maybe?). We often travel in packs.  A significant portion of my friend group is from Williston. Because of this, there’s the argument that sub-free housing causes its inhabitants to band together and, in the process, exclude others. The sub-free environment factors into the dorm’s cohesion to a certain extent (a majority of the people do, after all, share an anti-drug sentiment). At the end of the day though, our closeness lies in the size of Williston and its compatible conglomeration of people. I don’t know how ResLife did it (sorting hat?) but they got something right when they grouped my dorm mates and I under our tiny roof.  Despite our cohesion, we’re far from divisive. We like to joke that we bring “outsiders” home and adopt them into our family. These “honorary Willistonians” will attest to our friendliness. I see no fault in a strong community when it’s welcoming.

Substance-free housing isn’t perfect. There’s a subtle, but notably exercised judgment.  I’ve seen it on the looks of some of my dorm mates when someone from the minority comes home completely wasted. I hear it in the jokes exchanged about that same incident on the following morning. But, again, the judgment is subtle. To my knowledge, no one has practiced blatant criticism.

Ultimately, substance-free housing isn’t a bad option for anti-drug (or else, hesitant) first-year students trying to adjust to college culture. It gives them a chance to get used to the prevalence of drinking and smoking from a short distance, but a distance nevertheless. It’s an effective housing option, one that is far too misunderstood.

Shameless Williston plug: Stop through. We’re pretty spectacular. Most importantly, Giaco Corsiglia is our RC—that’s right; just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.