MyStudentBody - Alcohol-Free Programming with Donna Lim, M.Ed.

Alcohol-Free Programming with Donna Lim, M.Ed.

Two women talking on a couch drinking coffee

Donna Lim is the Senior Assistant Director of Campus Programs for the Adele H. Stamp Student Union, Center for Campus Life at the University of Maryland. She has been on the College Park campus for the past 12 years. Lim began her Maryland career as the advisor to Student Entertainment Events, the campus program board. She has been in her current role for the past ten years, overseeing all the programming areas in the Student Union. Her portfolio has included student activities as well as programs and services that occur at the facilities located in the Union. These facilities include a 550 seat theater, a gallery, an Art & Learning Center as well as a recreation center that houses bowling, billiards, a video arcade, and TV lounge.  Lim has been a student affairs professional at the University of Pittsburgh and George Washington University. She has a bachelor's degree in Communications and a master's in Higher Education Administration both from the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a part-time doctoral student in the College Student Personnel Program at the University of Maryland.

What role do late night substance-free events play on a college campus? 

I think that in responding, I would highlight programs that are offered here in the Stamp Student Union. Activities happen here through the program board and through student groups that utilize our facilities for events. All school-affiliated events (not just late-night activities) are considered substance-free.  We try to offer events and programs that are of interest to students -- events that supplement their activities and involvement on campus. As far as what the program board events look like, there is a wide variety. We have some predictable, recurring events, and we also have some one-time happenings (concerts, comedy shows, etc.).  There are approximately 525 registered student groups here on campus, and these groups often host events that are open to all students. In fact, most of the programs are student-run. Some examples of the types of events that are going on at the Stamp are socials, cultural events, and performances.

How can campus AOD staff or other campus administrators work with students to increase the attendance and popularity of substance-free late night programming? 

It's really all about collaboration and communication. We see a lot of collaborative programming happening where there are students and administrators involved. Students need to be vested in the programs that are happening, and that is the way to see these programs thrive. As administrators, we do our part to provide opportunities and resources to students to allow them to create and implement their own events. There's also collaboration among departments. The programming board often works with the peer educators and AOD staff at our health center to program activities for students. I think that it's really important that people from all parts of campus life collaborate on creating substance-free events that are appealing and popular with students.

Are most of your programs student-run? 

There is a wide array of programming that is done by student groups, and there are also events organized by different departments. But most of the programs are student-run. All registered campus student organizations have to have an advisor.  Our program board, Student Entertainment Events (SEE), is the only student organization that has a dedicated full-time advisor and two graduate assistants working with them in their programming efforts.

At UMaryland we believe in the student programming model: having students create events for other students. Specifically looking at SEE, students are given autonomy from the inception of the idea all the way through. They have their own trained tech crew, security team, and basically take care of all aspects of making the event happen. The administrative advisors to the group help the group to stay within campus policy and give advice when needed.

What ingredients or components contribute to a successful late night substance-free program? 

I think that it requires students being involved and invested in the event. There is a big difference in the success of a program if students are involved in the planning.  If students are behind it, they're using word of mouth to get other students interested; they're using things like Facebook to advertise the event. One strategy we have used to involve student groups is to donate $100 to two student groups in exchange for providing volunteers to help run an event. This works in two ways:

  • It's an opportunity for students to fundraise for their own group
  • It gets students involved because these students [in the groups] have their friends come visit them while they work at the event and they become a part of it.

So the key ingredient is probably student involvement, but that's not everything. Financial resources and other logistical assistance are definitely needed.  We need funding to make things happen and to have the ability to see these events through. Also, having advisors help student groups is important because students are usually new to programming and don't know all the elements that go into planning an event.

Can you share some experiences of successful late night substance-free programming? Unsuccessful attempts? 

Here at the Union we try to do our fair share of programming. Also, we are willing to be collaborative with campus colleagues. In the past, we have provided some of our equipment to help other groups enhance their own programs. A very recent initiative involved [the University] Health Center. They received a grant for substance-free programming, and partnered with Campus Recreation Services staff at the [Eppley] Recreation Center to put on some late night substance-free events. "Eppley after Dark" was created where there was Wii, X-box, and Play Station 3 for students to use. It was offered twice a semester to bring students out and get involved. Other activities included a dodge ball tournament and intramural competitions, and the numbers were great. So that was a new program we were happy to help our campus colleagues with.

We have what was referred to as "weekend programming" that concentrates on doing events on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. We've been doing it for the last 12 or 13 years. In the last couple of years, we've been trying to do some predictable programs on Friday or Saturday nights. Some examples are "First Friday" or "Saturday Night Live" and there's usually some kind of theme. We had a Carnival theme for a First Friday where we brought out novelty games and activities like Skeeball, a moon bounce, and other Carnival-like activities. Turn-out was relatively low for some of these programs.

But, there remains the age-old question of how to measure whether an event is a success or failure. Numbers may be low over the course of an event from 8:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. In terms of numbers, we may only get 100 students – so, it can be seen as "unsuccessful." But, is it successful because those students that did come had a great time? We have to ask whether money is being put into the right things, whether it's the best use of resources. The programming staff needs to take that into consideration when planning events.  I think that if we looked at it along those lines our weekend events (First Friday, Saturday Night Live) may be considered to have minimal success, but if you look at what the students get out of it, they're a success.

What happens when the activities are substance-free, but not all the attendees are? How does the presence of intoxicated students affect the success of the program and the enjoyment of other students participating? 

We do have a lot of social and cultural events that have become very popular- they're ticketed and usually sell out. Unfortunately a reality is that some participants who come are under the influence, and there might even be medical attention needed. Obviously our first concern is for the safety of our students and their guests.

Is there a way to totally avoid this scenario? I don't know if physically we are able to do that. When we do have a social, only those people with tickets are allowed into the ballroom. But, the event is in a public building. So, there is a potential for those who are unable to make it into the party to hang around in the lounges and other parts of the building. Personal safety is always a top priority. We do have University police present and event staff helps at all events by checking ID's and checking the doors so that people aren't sneaking in. When student groups have events, they are very much in charge of the event, but they work in close collaboration with the building and event staff to make sure we are offering a safe and substance-free event.

Even after all those precautions, if you have someone at an event who is under the influence they may take away from the positive experience for the rest of those who are coming to have a good time with their friends and are not there to drink or use drugs. Unfortunately, there may be one or two students who impede that evening and draw attention to themselves or cause an altercation. It would be up to the sponsoring student group, building staff, or police to have that person removed from the event if he/she becomes a nuisance or is out of control.

Why might students be averse to attending late night substance-free activities? What kind of tactics can programmers employ to overcome barriers to attendance? 

There is a stigma of sorts, that it's "not cool" to go to an event on-campus that does not have alcohol. We get into the whole peer pressure issue and that "coolness factor" about the appearances of what you're doing. Students judge whether it's a good or bad thing to do versus going to an off-campus, unsupervised party where anything could happen. There's always a sense of safety with things that are happening here on campus, but that may not be entirely appealing to students for whatever reason. How do we overcome this? It still falls to having students involved in coordinating their own events. They know what their peers are interested in doing, what would be fun, and what would be an attraction. They can use word of mouth and their associations to get students to come out and have the event be successful.

Are there any books, articles, or online resources that you would recommend for someone who would like to learn more? 

Personally, as a current doctoral student, I've been reading and have access to lots of research-based and theoretical scholarly writings on student development and co-curricular involvement. But, for this type of work you need to use a hands-on practitioner model. You need the practical experience and knowledge that resonate with students' interests and needs. The best way is to see what other campuses are doing, to see where there has been success in late-night programming at other schools. You can see events that work at other campuses by looking at other program boards and websites, and apply that to what is happening to your campus.

Don't try to re-invent the wheel! I've seen great late- night programming at peer institutions -- I always look at Penn State and West Virginia University. They have great programs that work well, but I have to note that those are two large campuses that are fairly isolated and are not very close to a thriving metropolitan area. So UMaryland being in College Park as part of the DC-Metropolitan area, I have to stop and think about whether these other programs would work as well on our campus. So, I think it's important to see what other peer institutions are doing in terms of what works, and also figuring out whether these programs would fit well with your own school.