My fellow first-years and I were standing outside Montreal's Molson Stadium, herded like sheep, when our Frosh leaders came storming up the hill towards us, chanting some kind of war-cry. One of the leaders grabbed me by the shirt. "You're mine!" she yelled, before dragging me by the sleeve into a smaller group of people, where a tall dude wearing about eight strings of Mardi Gras beads was writing names on people's shirts—monikers like Cumjunkie Chris and Peter Peter Pussy Eater.
"You need a name!" My leader cried drunkenly, grabbing a Sharpie from her pocket.
Terrified and scandalized, I told her to keep it tame. At eighteen I was as innocent as a houseplant. No way was I getting Meat-Queen Mica graffitied across my back. My mother was still in town, after all.
Compromising, my leader scribbled Mica Loves Men! onto the shirt. "That OK?" she asked, perhaps to see if she'd correctly guessed my sexual preference. "Yeah, sure." I said.
The rest of the week contained much of the same. Drunk leaders forgot my name (and probably my existence altogether), didn't reply to my texts when I needed directions or help relocating the group, shoved cups of warm beer in my face that I didn't want. After about two days of this, I sort of gave up on Frosh week. I hadn't found many sober allies and decided I'd rather spend afternoons with my mom, eating maple jelly off croissants instead of licking salt off strangers' bellies—a body shot prerequisite at pub crawls. I wasn't really into the go-to cheer— Three cheers for McGill, fuck fuck fuck! Three cheers for fucking, McGill McGill McGill!—because it seemed pretty dumb, and kind of sexually aggressive from a place of sobriety.
But that was just my experience.
Curious as to whether being sober at Frosh is more/less terrifying than it was for me at McGill several years ago, I asked students from some of Canada's largest universities about what it's like to refuse alcohol during the biggest party week of the year.
When I came to UBC I'd been sober for six months. I'd stopped drinking after being assaulted at a house party in Montreal when I was 18. I'd blacked out soon after arriving and, despite there being twenty-plus other people in the room, nobody stepped in. I stopped drinking cold turkey soon after that. So at Frosh, I still went to a few of the events and parties and, yeah, it was total binge-drinking city. I wasn't surprised to see all that drinking, but I was surprised at how few people were speaking up and talking about how ridiculous it was. I saw so many girls get way too drunk and no one intervened. That was very upsetting. The worst part was seeing a group of friends hanging out at the start of the night, everything going well, and then a couple of them—usually girls—getting way too drunk and being abandoned by their friends.
One night I went out with a group of my friends, all of whom were drinking, and we went to the Pit. At one point a man—obviously very drunk—came up to me, grabbed me and tried to dance. When I pushed him away—you know, pretty politely, saying I wasn't interested—he pulled me closer and completely unzipped my dress from the back. Then he pushed me back into the crowd. I found my friends and we got out of there. The next day I gave campus security a description of him, and I was also able to identity him by photo because they take pictures of everyone at the door. They told me he'd be banned but I have no idea of they ever followed through.
The scary thing is that I can imagine what would've happened if I'd been drinking, too. Maybe this guy had been out before and done this to other girls who weren't in a position to say no. Someone being able to go around like that and not be confronted terrifies me, and what terrified me about seeing so many drunk people around campus.
University of Toronto
I was 16 in my first year. On the second day of Frosh, I got a call from a friend of mine saying his twin brother—also a friend of mine—had been in a car accident and broken his back. At the time he was partially paralyzed. Previous to Frosh I didn't have a gameplan regarding whether I'd drink or not, but that call definitely derailed the approach I had to the week. I was wondering if my friend was going to live or die, and so I was in a totally different headspace than everyone else.
But I had a don, or an RA, that noticed how quiet I was on that second day. She asked me what was up and I told her I was having trouble focussing because of what had happened to my friend. She was really supportive, and tried to gently encourage but not pressure me to get involved in activities. And so the next day I started to find my feet again. Obviously I wasn't feeling my best, but I still was able to throw myself into learning the Frosh dance and the U of T parade downtown, for example. So if the question is the role of alcohol in Frosh week, I didn't feel like I needed to drink to have a good time, nor did I feel pressured. Even though my friend was in the hospital the whole time, I was still able to come out of that week feeling like I belonged and like I'd had a good time. I was also surprised with the lack of peer pressure to drink. I didn't really feel that.
But there's always someone who makes you think, "holy shit, how are you alive after what you did to your body?" Once, there was one kid from Victoria College who got drunk and thought it would be a good idea to steal one of the engineer's hard hats as about a hundred of them were passing through our quad. He was drunk, grabbed a hard hat, but ended up tripping and falling as he ran away. He was immediately jumped on by about five engineers. That was really shocking from an animalistic point of view, like how the engineers reacted to their hat being taken. You know the seagulls in Finding Nemo? It was like that, but instead of yelling "mine!" they were yelling "hard hat, hard hat, hard hat!." They identified the target and went for it.
Isolating is probably the best word I could use to describe my Frosh experience. Queen's was very adamant that Frosh week be dry, and so I wasn't the only one not drinking, but I feel like I missed out on some really good chances to connect with people easily. I think not drinking during Frosh slowed me down for most of first year, to be honest. A lot of my friends went on and had fantastic first years, largely because they made such good connections during Frosh. And they made those connections so easily because they were drinking and partying—getting rid of that barrier right off the bat. I didn't have that.
One night my girlfriend and I took a walk down Uni avenue, which is completely insane during Frosh—party at every house, streets filled, cops have it lined off and all that. We were totally sober and people kept yelling at us —"hey, Froshie!"—because they could see by our bracelets that we were first years. There were also people starting shit with the cops, people puking all over, and I don't really know how I felt. It would have been a lot nicer if I were drunk. But at the time it was just off-putting. I guess if I could give one message to incoming first years, it'd be to stay safe, but not sober.
University of Toronto
I don't drink and so I was sober for my entire Frosh week. I'm also a competitive soccer player and had torn my ACL and meniscus in March 2016. I had the surgery in July, and so this meant I was on crutches during Frosh and for my first week of uni. There was a Frosh parade where all the faculties and sister campuses came together, and they shut down all of Bay Street for us. As the parade started, we all began walking and then suddenly everyone was told to start running. I could barely walk, let alone run, and so this guy with a walkie-talkie came up to me and was like "why aren't you running?" I said, "well, duh, I have this huge brace and I can't!" And so he radioed some of his friends, and when they showed up they asked if I wanted to ride in the parade car. I was like, "of course!" But the car was about a kilometre up the street, and so four of the guys literally lifted me up together and ran, carrying me and urging people to make way until we reached the car. It was great to feel a part of everything, despite my situation.
The most interesting night was probably club night. It was basically a crazy rave, and good comic relief for me. Everyone was drunk, girls were dancing all around me but I was just trying to walk through the crowd without getting hurt! I thought, "wow, where am I? This feels completely out of place." But after about half an hour I went outside by myself and just stared at the CN Tower and the stars. I thought of all the stuff that had happened over the past four or five days. I'm a really dedicated soccer player—I play every day of the week—and when I tore my ACL it was a really sad period for me. I was mentally disturbed, on a lot of pain meds and stuff. But Frosh was the first time I could have fun again with a group of people and really express myself. It was the most I'd walked in two months. It was a challenging week, both mentally and physically, but this pushed me to recover—which I have now, fully. So Frosh was more than just a fun time. It was sort of a spiritual experience for me.
My sober experience of Frosh Week at Queen's was neither good nor bad. It was more enlightening than anything else.
The main activities, truthfully, were not any fun at all for anyone. So, despite there being an alcohol-free rule in residence, it was very quickly decided that first-years would enter the student "ghetto" late at night to have a "real" Frosh experience. Being someone who was not really a fan of continuous or gratuitous alcohol consumption, this usually left me alone at night in my residence room.
That feeling was isolating, but where it was nice and not isolating was that everyone was in a new stage of their life and equally vulnerable. And so making friends was not hard at all. No one wanted to be alone, and no one wanted to be guilty of leaving someone out. The girls on my floor would invite me places, but never judge me if I said I had no interest in going. Staying sober, I was able to build friendships that weren't based on false pretences or a temporary identity.
On the night of the dance, I was a bit tired and decided to head back to my room early. As I was leaving, I saw two elderly men on a late night stroll, watching everyone have a good time. I don't believe in perpetuating the idea that people—especially older generations—can't look on or interact with young people without it being creepy. I think those older than us can enjoy seeing younger people have fun. And so as I passed nearer to them, one extended his hand through the metal fence as if to dance. I pretended to grab it and, as "Teach Me How to Dougie" blared in the background, we danced for about a minute, swing-style. We both laughed a lot, and he thanked me for the dance. I'll remember it for the rest of my life, and I have being sober to thank for that.
I just finished my first year. I started off in Science Frosh, and I was really lucky in that I had good Frosh leaders. I think a lot of Frosh leaders are there to party hard, and I know people who didn't feel like they were cared for by their leaders. I had some friends in Arts Frosh, and some of them were like, "oh man, I was so uncomfortable the whole time, I don't drink, my leaders were all drunk, I didn't know what to do." But for me that wasn't the case. I expected to be pressured to drink, but I hardly felt any pressure at all.
On the second day there was supposed to be a pub crawl, and I was like, "well what am I supposed to do now?" I was underage and didn't want to drink anyways. But our leaders told us about a non-drinking group that was doing a food crawl instead. It was so awesome, and so I ended up staying with the non-drinking group for the rest of the week. It was a really good group of people and they're still my best friends now. I think a lot of people meet people during Frosh and like them, but everyone is so caught up with being drunk that they don't stay connected beyond that. Because we were non-drinkers, we could connect with each other over more than just being drunk.
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