AC Voice

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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.

About Elaine Vilorio

"But I'm not a rappa." -Supa Hot Fire

8 comments on “The Deconstruction of First-Year, Sub-Free Housing

  1. marielambert15
    September 28, 2013

    As someone who lived in a sub-free dorm freshman year as well (Stearns 2nd floor wut up), I really appreciated this article. Everyone in the dorm was there for a wide variety of reasons (and varying levels of sub-freeness), but the amazingly supportive environment brought us together in a way I have yet to see replicated at Amherst. I met some of my best friends that year and am so incredibly grateful to have had the chance to be a part of that community.

  2. Anonymous
    September 29, 2013

    As a fellow first year without a ton of exposure to the sub-free dorms, I really appreciate that you wrote this article. The Williston community sounds exactly like the kind of supportive, interesting, and fun-loving social system we strive for at Amherst. I want to come hang out with you guys!

    There was, however, one phrase you used that didn’t fit the picture you painted of tolerant, cool kids who make the personal choice not to use substances. That phrase is “anti-drug.” When you used it in this parenthetical, “a majority of the people do, after all, share an anti-drug sentiment,” I must say that I winced.

    The prefix “anti” has a strong connotation. In the three instances that pop-up off the top of my head: “anti-government spending,” “anti-abortion,” and “antidisestablishmentarianism,” “anti” means intolerance for the idea followed in any way shape or form. Regarding “anti-government spending,” right now, Republicans in the house are so against raising the debt ceiling to accommodate Obacamare that they are risking shutting down the U.S. government. Moreover, Anti-abortion advocates want to make getting an abortion illegal, and thus eliminate the practices from existence. And finally, back in the day (and I mean way back in the day) antidisestablishmentarianists didn’t want the Anglican church to reform (see: Plymouth Rock). Anyway I spin it, anti means you don’t want to do something and you don’t want anyone else to want to be doing it either.

    Now, I don’t claim to be a semiotic authority on the English language. I’m especially not an authority on how you, Elaine Vilorio, use it. So I eagerly invite you to correct me if my impressions about your use of “anti” are wrong. But this is the meaning that my personal experience has given the prefix, and I can’t change that.

    This meaning of “anti” leads me to believe that when you say “a majority of the people [in Williston] do, after all, share an anti-drug sentiment,” you mean that a majority of the people in Williston do not use drugs and are intolerant of other students using them.

    If this is true, it troubles me that students on this campus don’t respect the choices of their peers. As someone who isn’t personally opposed to drinking, I don’t take issue with people who are. So why should the standard not run the other way?

    Perhaps this is a language mix-up. But if it isn’t, wouldn’t some students be in the right to think that the “sub-free” dorms are “divisive” because they codify, with physical boundaries, an attitude of intolerance towards choice on the campus?

    • Elaine Vilorio
      September 29, 2013

      I really appreciate your concern with the prefix “-anti.” You make some excellent points in the connotation it usually elicits. However, in this case, I used it exclusively to mean a lack of drug use or a hesitancy to use drugs. It should not be interpreted as the intolerance of the drug use of others.

      None of my dorm mates, to my knowledge, flagrantly judge others for using drugs. I acknowledge that there is “subtle judgment.” That is, some of my dorm mates don’t see drug use as sensical and can’t comprehend why it’s executed. In the process, some of them question why others do it. However, insofar as I know, they wouldn’t say someone is morally incorrect for using drugs. And, in clarifying this, I feel compelled to tread lightly on the phrase “subtle judgment.” Scrutinizing it more closely, I see It implies that there’s an almost unconscious tendency to assess a person’s character negatively. It’s more curiosity than anything. It’s “Why drink and smoke? I don’t see the appeal.” and not “Why drink and smoke? It’s wrong and other people who do it are wrong.”

      My non-smoking and non-drinking dorm mates/friends are not close-minded.I can attest to that. As such, please don’t feel there is prejudice. I encourage you to stop by Williston (or any of the other sub-free dorms–but, honestly, just Williston because Williston) and hang out. :)

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. Noah G '14
    September 29, 2013

    Here here! It’s sad but true that these myths need to be debunked year after year. I think we’ve come a long way since I was a first year, when the divide between “sub-full” and “sub-free” seemed very pronounced. Thank you for writing!

  4. Anonymous
    September 30, 2013

    You had me at, “Giaco Corsiglia is our RC.”

    • Anonymous
      October 17, 2013


  5. Anonymous
    October 7, 2013

    Thank you for this article! I lived in sub-free housing my freshman year as well, and later chose not to live in sub-free housing as a sophomore and junior. I made this decision not because I had a change in my views on drinking/consuming drugs, but because I simply didn’t like the residential hall (Val) that is the designated sub-free dorm for upperclassmen. One thing people need to understand is that sometimes, people choose “sub-free housing” simply because they like the dorm that is to be designated sub-free. I had heard that Stearns was the sub-free freshman dorm the year before I was a freshman, so, having reviewed the floor plans and having decided that I liked the way the Stearns rooms looked, I clicked “sub-free” in hopes that I would be put in Stearns. And I was! For me, there were other reasons as well for marking the “sub-free” box. But the point of my spiel is that you can never tell why someone chooses sub-free, and you really shouldn’t generalize about students who live in sub-free housing. (Honestly, clicking “sub-free” your first year is the best. No one ever threw up on our floors and we had approximately 30 cents of dorm damage all year.) Like Elaine said, “not drinking” doesn’t mean “not having fun”, either. It’s sad that this is an equation that many people have come to make, however unconsciously.

  6. Pingback: A First Year’s Reflections | AC VOICE

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This entry was posted on September 28, 2013 by in Amherst College Victories and tagged , , .

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