Substance-free Living Option Should Be a Student's Right
By Magdalena Cervantes Cassel '12
Every incoming freshman at Amherst, when filling out the housing form, has the option to mark a preference for “substance-free housing.” I remember pausing when, two and a half years ago, I sat down with that form. I didn’t drink much myself, and growing up I had often felt uncomfortable when my relatives drank to excess. But if I chose sub-free, would I be surrounded by serious, studious types who went to bed at ten on a Saturday night? I eventually chose sub-free on the theory that I would rather live somewhere quiet and have the option to go somewhere loud and lively than the other way around.

That decision, more than any choice of course or extracurricular, defined my freshman year experience. As soon as orientation began, I discovered that I was living in a community of people like me in a fundamental way, but incredibly diverse otherwise. Some of us were early-to-bed, early-to-rise scholars; the vast majority of us were not. We were artists, athletes, nerds, dancers, thinkers, gamers and everything else, representing every prospective major. We were from every corner of the country and at least seven other countries besides. We were of many different religious and political persuasions. Some of us drank, some of us didn’t. The one common thread was how much we each valued coming home to a space where, whatever lifestyle choices we made, we felt safe and accepted.

People choose to live in sub-free housing for many different reasons. Some of us, for various reasons, feel uncomfortable around alcohol and the effect it can have on people. Others of us are perfectly comfortable with it and simply prefer to be able to come home to a sub-free environment. Some people choose sub-free living for a quieter sleep and study space. I know of some students who choose it because they are allergic to smoke. Whatever our personal reasons, however, we all consider sub-free housing invaluable to our ability to choose.

This is not to say that without sub-free housing, students would be forced to make choices they don’t want to make — we are all mature enough to make our own decisions. They could, however, be forced to live in an environment that conflicted with their own decisions. In some dorms on campus, there is a comfortable mingling of those who do and those who don’t, with no particular division or tension. But that balance is not always achieved. When it isn’t, individual students find themselves unhappily isolated in a place that is supposed to be our home away from home. This shouldn’t happen — and should be easily avoidable when the school has the resources to prevent it, and has already implemented half the solution in the form of the freshman sub-free option. The next step is an upperclassman option which works the same way, expanding or shrinking according to demand.

The sub-free community has been growing in the past few years — the Health and Wellness Theme House has expanded from 20 students to 50, and freshman sub-free housing now fills both Stearns and Williston. But this year’s freshmen are soon to face the problem that my classmates and I did two years ago. If they want to continue living in a sub-free environment, their only official option is the Health and Wellness Theme House — and even if only a quarter of the sub-free freshman apply to it, all but a dozen or so will have to be turned away. Health and Wellness is already packed to capacity, and since it is technically a Theme House, it can’t keep growing indefinitely. Health and Wellness, in truth, should never have been a Theme House. Theme Houses are specialized communities dedicated to interests which deeply enrich campus culture — but they are interests, not needs. Marsh Arts House offers an inspiring space and support for art projects, but living somewhere else does not curb the student’s own art. Living in a Theme House is a privilege; sub-free housing should be a right.

To me, North was not an insular, exclusive environment. Everyone was welcome there, and we didn’t feel confined to it. North was not about defining borders; it was about providing a center. It was a hub of activity that radiated out, not in. The common room was always busy with people from all the freshman dorms who joined us to play Ultimate Twister and Rock Band. Sub-free living didn’t then, and won’t now, create a rift between those who choose it and those who don’t. We want to be able to live as a community that supports a certain way of living — without judging or infringing on others. For me, living in sub-free housing means living with like-minded peers who respect and share my choices. That’s an option every Amherst student should have.

Issue 14, Submitted 2011-02-08 23:46:47