Study Finds Students Drink More Abroad


Published: November 3, 2010

Going abroad for some is like vacation. Goodbye parents, ciao friends,and adios legal drinking age. The cultural opportunities afforded students studying in a foreign land are undoubtedly beneficial, but what remains unclear is the role alcohol plays in the international experience.

(Anthony Robert La Penna/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

A recent study done by researchers at the University of Washington found that students on average doubled their drinking while abroad. The study also found that students who were under 21 in the U.S. increased their drinking while abroad by about 170 percent. Although the study focused only on the drinking habits of a 177 students, it is believed that these results can hold true for a large number of students at other universities as well.

Fordham students are no exception to the study. While living in another country, students make drinking a part of their cultural experiences rather than leaving it as strictly socially-oriented. And culturally, they found it is normal, even expected, to drink alcohol with meals.

Lauren Rushing, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’12, who is currently studying in Strasabough France quickly realized that drinking alcohol was not something taboo for college students. She saw many students grabbing  a beer at lunch, and she noted, “beer is actually sold as a beverage choice on the value menu at Subway and McDonalds.”

“Spain is a completely different culture regarding alcohol,” said Joseph Martinez, FCLC ’11, who studied abroad in Granada, Spain last spring.  “The drinking age is lower and I became accustomed to drinking wine with lunch and dinner.” Martinez said that while abroad, he casually drank alcohol about five nights a week. At home, he drinks around two or three nights a week.

In London, it is typical to have alcoholic cider at a pub with dinner. In Spain, lunch and dinner are often served with wine. In Germany, beer is often the drink of choice. So while frequency of drinking often increases for students studying in another country, more drinks per week does not necessarily correlate to what many hold as the American college phenomenon of  “binge” drinking. In the U.S., this means the consumption of five or more drinks in a row by men or four or more drinks in a row by women all within an hour.

“It is not because other cultures promote more drinking, but rather because people drink differently in those cultures and sometimes students don’t have a clue,” Ronald Mendez-Clark, Ph.D., director of international and study abroad programs at Fordham, said. “Students come from a culture where you go to bar, you drink your drink and a waiter reminds you your cup is empty. In Europe, it’s perfectly normal for a Spaniard to spend three hours in a café and have one glass of wine.”

This concept of casual drinking is one that students often must adjust to. At home, there is a mentality of “going out” to drink, and drinking alcohol culturally as a complement to a meal is a taste that often develops later in life. College students, notorious for binge drinking, come to realize while abroad that drinking is not something only for Friday night fun.

“I think [binge drinking] is more likely in America,” Keith Eldredge, dean of students at FCLC said. “It just seems like that is the culture around drinking in colleges that has become a more accepted way of drinking.”

David Wall, FCLC’12, who is currently in Rome, Italy, said, “The drinking culture here is different in that people don’t drink to get smashed. People like going out here, so we go out more but drink less when we do. Heavy drinking isn’t a part of European culture.” Wall found that his drinking per night had increased. He has a few glasses of wine in the evening, but doesn’t “go crazy and bar hop” like he did while at Fordham.

Kelsey Garcia, FCLC’12 and president of Peers Advocating Responsibility, studied in Granada, Spain last spring witnessed a number of Americans abuse alcohol. “My Spanish friends never got wasted the way Americans do. They made fun of Americans who did. It is definitely a more cultural thing to drink one or two, get tipsy and enjoy yourself. To get incoherent, that’s not normal.” Garcia found that she drank at least five days of the week while abroad, often times with meals.

The study reported that drinking increased the most in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and students who studied in the Middle East and other areas where drinking is not as prevalent decreased their drinking.

Places like Barcelona, Dublin, Australia, and Rome, Mendez-Clark noted, have a reputation for attracting students with questionable motivations. “The infrastructure for having a good time in certain destination is so well developed that we often have to remind students so they are prepared to deal with distractions and challenges that such wonderful infrastructures afford them,” Mendez-Clark said.

Drinking with meals and making alcohol a part of the cultural experience of studying abroad are some reasons why alcohol intake among students increases. Another reason is the lowered drinking age. The majority of European countries have a drinking age of 18, and some places in some places like Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands, people can legally drink at 16.  For Fordham students, being “legal” offers a new kind of freedom, one that doesn’t involve scouring for a fake ID or sneaking past a bouncer.

“Since 21 is such a desirable age in the states, studying abroad is like time traveling,” Rushing said. “When you arrive, you are legal! No more worries about being carded or getting in trouble with the law. Some students go a little crazy.”

“I think drinking is an issue for American students because they are basically given free rein to drink whenever in Europe,” Wall said. “In the states there is such a stigma when it comes to drinking. Here, drinking is a part of everyday life and it’s a shock for American students.”

This shock factor is something many students have to adjust to. Not only is alcohol drinking often legal but [in foreign countries] it is even encouraged.

“Restaurants, bars and clubs all encourage drinking with special happy hours and discount nights,” Rushing said. “Students are much more appreciated in Europe!”

College itself can be a daunting transition. Tag on a brand new country and the prevalence of alcohol can be too much to handle.

Mendez-Clark explained how one student, a non-drinker from Fordham, went to Australia and returned to the states shortly thereafter. “When she went to Australia she said that she missed her support group, that there was absolutely nothing comparable and that most of socializing, or all of it, was drink-related and she couldn’t deal with it. It took a lot of strength for someone to come back and say, ‘This is a mistake for me.’”