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How I Found My Tribe in College — Without Drinking

Find out why not drinking in college isn't weird, and how you can still find even your closest friends.

At my college, my freshmen roommates were assigned at random. And when the assignments were released, it turned out I had two. So I had to Facebook stalk two people for my freshman triple. And let me tell you, Facebook stalking was very different in 2007 than it is now. From what I could tell, they seemed like fairly normal, average guys. But there was one thing I couldn’t tell at all from their profiles. Did they drink?

In high school, I chose not to drink at all. Early in high school, most of my friends also steered clear of it. But as we got older, gained older friends, and had older siblings and others who facilitated the habit, literally all of my friends began drinking. I remained friends with them, but I just decided I would leave our hangouts before things went that direction. For the most part, they all respected it. One friend who occasionally wanted a break from that scene even called me his “sober buddy” and later told me that I was his “backup conscience” when he really needed one.

As far as college, I decided I didn’t want to drink until I was 21. And I wasn’t sure how to broach this with my roommates. We didn’t have a sober-curious movement or any trend like that to latch onto, so I just committed to telling them right off the bat. On move-in Friday night, after the parents and chock-full cars had given way to orientation weekend, I simply told my two roommates, “I don’t drink. It’s fine if you guys do. I just ask that you try to keep it mostly out of our room.” They heard me out and agreed that it wouldn’t be a problem. 

As the year unfolded, my roommates kept a healthy stock of beer in our mini-fridge. They indulged in some significant drinking around the dorm and elsewhere. But they never brought that whole scene into our room or ever second-guessed my preference to avoid it. And they became two of my good friends as I began my college social life.

In the meantime, I wanted friends outside my roommates, too. This was trickier because most social invitations involved some sort of party with heavy drinking. So as weekend nights unfolded, I looked around for my dormmates who weren’t in the midst of pounding music and clouds of cheap beer. One night, I found two guys who were watching college football, having barroom-type arguments about players and teams, and grilling each other with trivia. They would become my sophomore-year roommates and to this day are my two closest friends from my dorm.

It wasn’t that people who mainly preferred going to parties would have been bad friends; it’s that the point of going to these parties was mostly or mainly to get drunk. I learned that a good way to test a social situation for me was to ask: What are they really doing? If a group was playing drinking games and calling it a competition, or booming loud bass music and calling it dancing, it just felt like a thinly veiled excuse to get hammered or worse. When my more low-key friends were sitting around, even if someone was sipping a beer or two, we were just hanging out. Maaaaaaybe someone was drinking, but no one was getting drunk. This sort of situation where drinking wasn’t the thing we were doing was my preference. These friends had that approach, and I wanted this kind of friend to be “my people.”

Building out from that solid base of friends in my residence hall, I found more of my people by pursuing my interests. For me, that meant auditioning for a choir — because I loved music and wanted to be involved in the Church — and declaring a single major in theology, which left me latitude to take other interesting classes. Being a part of a choir gave me people I saw regularly at three rehearsals and a Mass every week. We also sang special events, went on national and international tours, and even recorded an album! That bonding time and shared experience provided a space where I made my best friends. The people I met taking classes I loved became natural friends, too. We had readymade things to talk about, whether that was before or after class or while meeting up for meals or weekend hangouts.

The tricky part of all of this is that it took time. I didn’t find my best friends in my dorm until about a month into school, and even then it still took longer to get to know them well. I joined my choir right away, but I didn’t feel comfortable for months while I was learning the ropes. I was drawn to theology and other compelling subjects, but I had to get through general education classes first. And you can bet that during the first hard months I had those phone calls with other friends at different colleges wondering if I had chosen to attend the wrong school.

It all took some humility and a lot of patience. It’s not easy to turn down the party that “everyone” is going to. It’s dicey to say “no” to invitations from people whom you live with and want to be friends with. It’s especially risky to decline these opportunities in order to instead meet up with new friends to sing and quote along with Disney movies. It probably made some people think I was weird or abnormal or closed-minded. But the ones who thought that faded out of my social scene; the ones who were skeptical but saw me for who I was became solid friends; and the ones who were on the same page with me became my people. And I didn’t have to drink to find them.

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