Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 09

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Thinking outside the bottle

Thinking outside the bottle
C.C. Curtiss (right) confers with Scott McEver, director of student activities. Photo by Myles Green ´09.

Wellness educator C.C. Curtiss is helping students make smart decisions about alcohol

By Mary Howard


Binge drinking — defined as downing more than five alcoholic drinks in quick succession — has become a serious problem among students at virtually every college or university. The number of college students who use alcohol has remained constant since 1993, but the intensity of excessive drinking has increased, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

At Connecticut College, student surveys conducted with anonymity indicate that the majority of students use alcohol responsibly, but the significant minority of students who do engage in binge drinking also typically exhibit other unhealthy or risky behaviors.

That´s where C.C. Curtiss, director of student wellness and drug/alcohol education, comes into the picture. Although she engages in a wide range of wellness education and outreach, the majority of her time is spent working with students around issues related to alcohol and, to a lesser extent, other substance abuse. “I view myself as a safety net,” says Curtiss.

Any student brought to the administration´s attention for engaging in risky behavior, like binge drinking, is required to attend a workshop with Curtiss. “I say to the students, ´I´m not going to tell you what to do.´ I create a space for self-reflection. I ask them if they are getting out of [alcohol use] what they want out of it,” she says.

A second sanction means that a student must meet with Curtiss one-on-one. she says.
Binge drinking, says Curtiss, is typically a symptom of some other problem. “Some students use alcohol or drugs as a way to feel more comfortable and manage stress.”

Through a one-on-one motivational interviewing technique called BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students), she works to get to the root of the problem. “I ask them about their family history, what they´re using and how often,” she says. Though alcohol is the favored substance of abuse on campus, marijuana and prescription drug abuse are also seen.

“If students are written up for alcohol, typically they have other unhealthy behaviors, whether it´s using other substances, not getting enough sleep or getting too much ´screen´ time,” says Curtiss.

For students who choose to drink, Curtiss educates on low-risk guidelines and strategies, including promoting three or fewer drinks in a night. Campus surveys show that most students had zero to four drinks the last time they socialized, a rate that aligns with national trends and is not typically associated with high-risk behavior in college students.

On April 8, Curtiss and the Office of Student Life staff held “Think Outside the Bottle,” a program for students designed to promote and reinforce smart choices around alcohol. Attendees had the opportunity to complete a brief, anonymous questionnaire about their alcohol use and then meet privately with a mental health professional to evaluate the results.

Water bottles were given to those who took the questionnaire, thanks to a grant from the New London Community and Campus Coalition. Dean of the College Community Armando Bengochea donated cookie breaks to Plant and Larrabee, the residence halls with the highest percentage of participation in the program.

“Think Outside the Bottle Day was a great success,” says Curtiss. “Between Student Counseling Services, the Director of Health Services and myself, we spoke individually with more than 225 students that day with regards to health and alcohol, including rich conversations with those students who do not use alcohol.”

Curtiss compares campus-specific information that she collects from events like Think Outside the Bottle Day against data from national studies conducted by such organizations as the American College Health Association and the Core Institute. If she finds disparities after assessment, she looks for ways to strengthen her program by using effective strategies, like those outlined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.

“Last year, we identified gaps in the area of education and outreach,” she says. During the 2008-2009 academic year, Curtiss implemented education for sanctioned students and increased programming for the general student population, including partnering with faculty in the classroom.

She´s currently evaluating data collected this year, which will inform her areas of focus for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Perhaps her favorite aspect of her job is working with a group of 12 to 15 health peer educators, student leaders who are passionate about health promotion and committed to educating their peers. Her “peeps,” as she calls them, set an example for their fellow students by living healthy and balanced lifestyles. With Curtiss, they also coordinate interactive workshops and training sessions on health and wellness topics.

Justine Kelly ´09, an economics major from Westwood, Mass., became a health peer educator during her freshman year. “C.C. is a huge reason why I´ve stayed in the program,” says Kelly, who put on events to promote sexual health and safe sex. “She doesn´t have to come to our meetings after hours, but she does. She´s that committed to the program and the educators.”

Jen Sinisi ´09, another health peer educator and a government and history major from Cresskill, N.J., started the Breast Cancer Awareness Walk on campus. Proceeds from the event and the sale of t-shirts she designed were donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

“C.C. brought the group to where it is today,” says Sinisi. “She always goes above and beyond. It´s more than just a job to her.”

Curtiss has been at Connecticut College since 2005 and a full-time staff member in the Office of Student Life since January 2008. Originally from Mystic, Conn., she was an advertising representative for InStyle magazine in New York City when the Twin Towers fell. “After September 11, it was time to refocus,” she says. Curtiss went back to school, earning a master´s in education from Springfield College. “I´ve always had a passion for physical activity and health promotion,” she says.


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