10/26/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Choices and Consequences: College and Beyond


They towed my car. I was furious.

Graduate school, 1989. After circling the parking lot six times, I wheeled into a spot and clicked on my hazard lights. My paper was due at 5:00 p.m. I zipped into Russell House, printed the final version, and slipped a copy into my professor's mailbox. Less than 10 minutes, tops.

When I came back outside, my car was gone. Dammit. There would be a towing charge and a
hefty fine. Immediate consequences for a snap decision to park in a spot clearly designated for disabled drivers.

I regularly comment -- out loud and to no one in particular -- that I should put a sign in my office that says "choices and consequences discussed here." There are countless stories to share and options to discuss. This time of year, new college students are making choices about joining groups and clubs, when to confront a roommate who hasn't done laundry in nine weeks, and whether or not an all-nighter is really the best way to prepare for a midterm exam. They're also making more serious and challenging decisions about alcohol.

A lot of students will choose to drink alcohol at some point during their time in college. That's the reality. It's how they drink and how they value drinking that always gets my attention. An ambulance ride to the local ER gets you an instant meeting with me. Drunk driving accidents, sexual misconduct, personal injury, physical violence, and criminal behavior show us the ugly side of drinking. It might seem extreme -- but it's real. Be confident in yourself -- don't allow yourself to be pressured into something dangerous involving alcohol. Your safety and your health depend on your ability to make good decisions.

Alcohol consumption on an American college campus is complicated by the basic fact that 21 is the legal drinking age. If you're not 21, the consequences of a choice to drink can be significant, both on your campus and in the local community. You will find that state law and institutional policy are written clearly. Not knowing is not an excuse. Legality is the most well defined aspect of decision-making with regard to alcohol. Pause and think before acting.

Be in charge of your behavior and understand your responsibilities with respect to alcohol. Base your decisions about drinking on what is best for you, not on what others are doing. Consider your options and how the use of alcohol might affect your coursework, your personal relationships, and your living environment in the residence hall. Also, respect another person's decision not to drink -- it's an individual decision that should not be subject to peer pressure.

I have yet to find the answer to our concerns about college drinking. It's the Holy Grail of college administration. But I think we are making progress, especially when we're honest with our students. There is enormous value and depth in talking with college students about options -- a spectrum of scenarios -- to help them make informed decisions and consider their choices more carefully. We humans make a bad pick every now and then. Those few minutes I thought I'd save by parking illegally turned into three hours and $200. Our most valuable lessons are usually unpredictable, often uncomfortable, and always understood more fully upon reflection. Choices have consequences. We should never stop learning.