Our student culture of getting wasted and transitioning into professionals.

Seven years ago. 1am on a freezing Dunedin morning.

Everybody around me had their pants off – as was tradition at pants-off hour. A crowd of 40 fellow students were drunkenly shouting encouragement as two people competed to see who could eat an entire raw leek the quickest.

In my haze, I looked around these hedonistic young people and considered how these are our country’s future doctors and lawyers etc… It’s a cliché, I know - the kind of judgemental line you see in articles beneath photos of university students in a bad state.

I was just marvelling at the idea that any of us could go on to achieve much of anything. That this young woman, with her mouth stuffed full of leek, could one day create new precedents in our legal system; or that guy doing keg stands in the corner might go on to run a successful business.

The party lifestyle and culture of young people studying at universities and polytechs around the country is so disparate from the professions these institutions prepare us for. How can this kind of debauchery be such a prominent part of the system that prepares us to be respectable members of society?

It seemed impossible, for example, to think the doctors I had been treated by would have partied as hard as the people studying to be doctors around me at that moment. Yet, many of those people are doctors now.

One of them, we’ll call her Bridget, is now working as a surgeon. Having partied with her, I was curious how those wild university days had affected her life post-university, both personally and professionally.

We get to reminiscing about our craziest experiences and she recounted one evening in which she had to be physically carried out of a bar, at which point she ran away from the security only to get picked up by the police. She was so wasted she couldn’t remember her own address and so they had to ring her mum in order to deliver her home. This occurred shortly after she graduated near the top of her medical class.

I asked her if, during my next doctor visit, I should dwell on the idea of doctors having been this wild during their studies. Surprisingly, she said it’s actually the doctors who have had partied that you might want to be seen by.

“I strongly believe my background will allow me to become a more compassionate and caring doctor,” she says. “I think it also allows me to understand people from a wider range of backgrounds – or at least, more so than someone who has never partied in their life.”

She says her experiences have made her more empathetic, especially in dealing with drunk or high patients and those patients struggling with substance dependency. Having had her own experiences with binge-drinking and recreational drugs, she said she can understand how and why people get to these states and doesn’t have the fear that some people associate with these issues.

More importantly, she thinks her commitment to balancing a social life outside of medicine has made her a much more relatable and socially comfortable doctor with patients.

“There are lots of doctors who are so repressed and have never gone out and had a crazy night, done drugs, and gone off the deep end completely. And I wonder, have those people really lived?

“Going to lots of house parties, losing your phone and having a whole of unpleasant experiences as well as pleasant experiences – all of these things enrich you and allow you to have a broader perspective on life. If you just go home at 7 every night and are just a doctor – that is so boring and you probably can’t relate to people,” Bridget said.

The author partaking in the same vegetable/fruit eating tradition described in the opening – except with whole oranges, instead of a leek.

Going through student magazines across the decades, it seems that every generation of tertiary students have been equally debaucherous – if not more so. A study released last year looked at the effect changes made around alcohol culture and enforcement at the University of Otago had over 10 years. It found these changes had led to a significant reduction in the amount of time students spent drunk in a seven-day period. My time at university fell pretty squarely in this reduced period, and there was still plenty of intoxication to be had – so, I struggle to comprehend what it would have been like before these changes, in the era of the Undie 500 and prevalent couch burnings.

If this party culture is something that many generations of Kiwi tertiary students have shared, what is it then that this lifestyle offers young people as they leave university and head out into the big wide world to tackle these prestigious professions and what role does it play in getting us there?

I reached out to many people who had graduated university five to 10 years ago and found that, by and large, one phrase kept coming to the surface when discussing their partying… “No regrets”.

As people told me some of their most insane and humiliating anecdotes, most did so with a cheeky grin on their face and finished with a shrug of the shoulder.

I talked to a couple I knew at university, let’s call them Jack and Jill, who are now in their mid-thirties, married and living back in Dunedin. They told me about the night that they had first started dating, after stealing a bunch of booze from the back of an Undie500 van and getting drunk in an alleyway.

Now, a decade later, they are living amongst the kind of “loose units” that they had once been. When you’re a student in Dunedin, there is often the feeling that older locals see you as a nuisance and a burden – but Jack and Jill feel differently having experienced that life for themselves.

“There are times when I see students drunk out on the street and most of the time I get this kind of fond nostalgia when I see them,” Jill said.

“There is youthful exuberance to being a student and having this degree of freedom that you are never going to have again. The rest of most people’s lives is going to be working, child-rearing and paying mortgages and bills. When you’re a student you don’t own your own house, most people don’t have pets or kids or dependents. You might be broke and stressed, but the reality is that you can pretty much do whatever the fuck you want.”

More than just exploring your freedom, Jack adds, he now sees that these young people are exploring who they are and want to be. Thinking back on his experiences, he sees that he was pushing his boundaries, and with each experience figuring out more and more about how he did and didn’t want to present himself to the world.

“I don’t need to rectify my experiences at uni at all – it is very much a part of me and who I was and still am,” he said. “I think we’ve learnt who we want to be through some of those experiences, and now we are those people without drugs or alcohol.”

In that context, Jill sees how young people are using alcohol and drugs as a crutch -  that way they can push those limits of their own personality and experiences and use those substances as excuse for when they make an idiot of themselves.

“Alcohol gives you such a convenient excuse. If you do something wrong, you can be like ‘I was super wasted I’m really sorry’,” she said. “Obviously it is not the best excuse, but it’s useful when you’re trying to negotiate these social situations and people they are not used to.”

I can see truth in all of these benefits, having personally experienced how student party culture allowed me to sand my own rough edges, meet life-long friends and help me develop social skills that have been invaluable since. However, I still can’t help but feel it is an undeniably complex and problematic solution to these challenges. I have also experienced the raft of complications that accompany this culture, not least of all how often it conflicts with the very point of being a student – studying.

Amongst recounting their drunken exploits, many of the most successful graduates I talked to described how they developed a very stringent self-discipline. Bridget the surgeon, for instance, was very strategic with when and how much she cut loose – always making sure that her studies came first, before getting wasted. Especially in her first year, she said that if she hadn’t dedicated herself 100 per cent to her studies, she wouldn’t be a doctor today. A necessary dedication, with an average of 1800 students enrolled in the prerequisite first year health sciences each year and only 282 positions available in first year medicine.

“I knew a lot of people who missed out because they let the lifestyle current take it with them, instead of focssing on what needed to be done,” Bridget said.

Though it’s possible to talk to people like Bridget now with their hindsight of having managed to successfully balance partying with their studies, there are likely to be a huge number of people who didn’t manage to. Those who may have been great doctors, or any number of other important professions, who aren’t now because they couldn’t maintain that balance.

I reached out to another friend who this was the case for, we’ll call her Lucy. She spent three years at uni bouncing between degrees, before walking away with a massive student loan and little to show for it.

“Looking back on that time, it’s been a huge regret,” Lucy said. “I’ve felt real shame about how I spent that time and wasted that money.

“There was a lot of alcohol and a lot of pot – that ended up being the sole purpose of being there and studying was kind of an inconvenience in the end.”

Fortunately, in the time since Lucy has found her path and is now a senior manager in the construction industry and has a wife and two kids. I asked her how she thinks she’d handle sending her own daughter off to university considering her experiences.

“My feeling now, is that when she is 18 I will be pretty honest about what to expect from that culture. I don’t think I’ll be telling her not to participate and avoid it, I think that is unrealistic. That is what I was told and it was stupid,” Lucy said.

“I’ll prepare them upfront to balance their life. Of course you want them to have that student experience, you just don’t want it to encompass their entire experience.”

As was Lucy’s experience, research indicates that not participating in the drinking culture at New Zealand universities isn’t really an option if you want to remain social. Through peer-to-peer interviews, Dr Kirsten Robertson at the University of Otago, discovered students who drink heavily were discussed positively and described as sociable, whereas she wrote “the perception of students who do moderate their consumption was extremely negative. They were ascribed a negative social identity, for example ‘buzzkill’, and described as anti-social as they ‘didn’t fit in’ and ‘let the team down’”.

The toga party is a long-standing student experience. The author can be seen amp’ing up one such event in a golden toga, stage right. PHOTO: DANIEL CHEW

Talking with Acting Director of Student Health at Otago, Margaret Perley, she said for some students this culture can create an imbalance in their lives – where they don’t look after themselves and can no longer cope with the everyday stresses of life. This can lead to students struggling with interpersonal relationships and socially isolating themselves instead. As well as these mental strains, a predominant effect of getting bogged down in the binge-drinking culture is that students struggle academically, Margaret said.

Though the reasons for dropping out of university are many, data collected by the University of Otago does indicate that poor grades do play a contributing factor. A sample of students who enrolled in the university in 2015 but did not return in 2016 were surveyed about their reasons. The university found that students tended to leave if they were not doing well academically – 2/3 of the students that did leave had relatively poor grades, while few students left if they obtained good grades in their previous year.

The number of students not returning were not insubstantial either. In 2015, 19% of first year students did not return for the following year. In 2017 (the last year data was available), the dropout rate had fallen slightly to 16%. That is a lot of potential doctors, lawyers and many other professions that might never be.

Alongside the phrase “no regrets”, the other predominant word I heard talking to these graduates was “balance”. Partying can be awesome and lead to some graduates’ most cherished memories – but many said those experiences were only golden because they experienced them as part of a balanced lifestyle with studying, personal upkeep and other extracurricular activities like being part of clubs or societies. For these happy grads, balance is perhaps the most important thing they learnt from their university experience.