Is substance misuse part of the college experience? UT initiative says it doesn’t have to be

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UT Austin students line up to visit the booth for the SHIFT initiative which aims to change the culture around substance misuse on campus. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A campus booth at the University of Texas at Austin drew in a crowd of curious students on Tuesday with the promise of free popsicles and stickers that say “SHIFT HAPPENS.”

The event marks the launch of a new initiative called SHIFT at UT — it’s not an acronym but rather a bold call to action, the founders say — which aims to shift the culture on campus when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

The organizers of this new initiative acknowledge that substance misuse is often assumed to be part of the college experience — at UT and at campuses all over.

That’s why SHIFT is aiming to roll out pilot programs and gather student input on how to prevent substance misuse, make space for those who are in recovery or don’t want to use substances, and promote wellness for everyone on campus.

The Center on Addiction explains that substance abuse by college students is a major issue at U.S. colleges and universities. The organizers behind this initiative explain that UT’s rates are consistent with the national rates.

“Often we equate substance use and college life as kind of one and the same,” explained Kate Lower, SHIFT director. “SHIFT just kind of wants to have a conversation, one that focuses on the multidimensional experience of a student, rather one solely on substance use or misuse,”

She explained that UT already has prevention programs and support programs, but SHIFT aims to take that effort a step further by getting students, professors, mentors, and even local bars involved.

Separately, UT’s School of Undergraduate Studies and the Division of Student Affairs have made strides in this area, but SHIFT will be the first time they’re working together on a combined effort to prevent substance misuse.

So far, the program plans to lean on six pilot programs. These include:

  • Partnering with bars and businesses: form a coalition with hospitality and alcohol-related businesses in Austin, offering bars ID scanners to stop fake IDs, disincentivize happy hours and drink specials targeted at students, train bartenders and retailers on how to limit the risk of substance misuse.
  • Training for faculty: training professors in certain subject areas about substance use, high-risk behaviors, and overall wellness.
  • Training for mentors and advisors: training First-Year Interest Group mentors and advisors at Sanger Learning Center and Vick Advising Center about substance use, wellness, impacts of behaviors on academic success, and healthy choices.
  • Text messaging: setting up a group text message system where student group leaders on campus can send out real-time messages to members about reducing risk and encouraging healthy behavior. SHIFT says the data shows these texts are effective and that it helps when they are sent by peers at the time when substance misuse could be occurring.
  • Safer events for students: Any UT organization can sign up for a voluntary party registration program through the university, which will offer those groups who register in advance food and water. In order to get these freebies, party hosts will need to attend a responsible social host and sober monitoring training. SHIFT will also help fund substance-free events during typical peak party times at UT like tailgates and OU weekend.
  • Grants for future ideas: SHIFT will offer mini-grants that campus community members can apply for which can help fuel other ideas to achieve the goal of shifting the culture.

SHIFT is made possible by funding from the Houston-based Hildebrand Foundation.

SHIFT will also have a student advisory board to make sure that students have a voice in how they want to see this initiative work.

“Students are imperative in shifting a culture, it really is theirs to do,” Lower said.

“We are really excited to see some change happen,” she added.

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