Eliot Hall spent the third-last night of his spring break in Cancun, Mexico, in jail.
He had gone to CoCo Bongo, a tropical-themed nightclub with his group of friends, but gotten separated from them in the dark and crowded space. Because they were in Mexico, they couldn’t use their cellphones to contact each other. Heavily intoxicated, Hall left the club and stumbled around Mexico until he was confronted by the police. Without knowing why, he threw his wallet and all of his belongings in a bush and started running.
Hall was arrested and detained in a Mexican prison for a few hours – until he muscled up enough Spanglish to get out by giving the cops the $23 he found in his back pocket, four cigarettes and a promise that he would purchase the next pay-per-view of Mexico’s boxing hero Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.
He then walked 7 miles from CoCo Bongo to his hotel, Oasis Cancun. He didn’t arrive until 7 a.m. and didn’t go out with his friends for the remainder of the trip.
Hall, who asked The Spectrum to change his name because of his arrest in a foreign country, doesn’t think he’ll ever go back to Mexico for spring break.
The stereotypical college spring break experience has become synonymous with a week of day drinking in swimsuits on the beach and partying in clubs at night. Students can spend upwards of $1,000 on airfare, all-inclusive resorts, cover charges at nightclubs and taxi cabs for a weeklong stay. But it’s not what every student is doing, despite culture’s obsession with an alcohol-induced vacation.
Roughly 32 percent of UB students are planning to go on vacation for spring break this year, according to a spring break survey of 218 students conducted by The Spectrum. Of those, roughly 3 percent plan to go to Cancun, .09 percent to the Dominican Republic, 10 percent to Florida and .45 percent to Jamaica.
But only about 16 percent of UB students surveyed indicated they have ever been on a “stereotypical” college spring break.
Steve Merry, a 2014 UB alumnus, went to Panama City Beach with friends from UB for spring break three times over the course of his college career. He said that the spring break culture “is designed to get you into trouble.”
“Binge-drinking young adults, mix in drugs, a party atmosphere, unsupervised, no responsibility – you are gonna get a lot of problems, especially for the ones who think they are invincible and immune to consequences,” Merry said.
ABC News lists Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Jamaica, Panama City Beach, Miami and the Dominican Republic as popular spring break destinations for college students.
Breanna Cragg, a 2014 alumna, spent six days during spring break senior year at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun with 11 of her friends. She said her trip consisted of “a lot of drinking on the beach during the day and then out to clubs downtown at night.”
The resort she stayed at hosted MTV, who spent the week filming its annual spring break special. MTV brought Cash Cash, AfroJack and Trey Songz to perform free concerts on the beach and held events like dance contests, tug-of-wars with kegs and drinking contests.
UB spring-breakers described waking up every day and heading right to the beach, setting up beer pong in the sand and starting to drink early. One student won a drinking contest by downing all of the beer in a bottle placed between a guy’s legs, without using her hands.
Nineteen percent of students surveyed by The Spectrum consumed alcohol while underage during a spring break vacation; 11 percent took illegal drugs; 10 percent had an anonymous hook-up; 13 percent got blackout drunk; 3 percent were arrested; and 4 percent lost their IDs.
Cragg said her spring break experience was “100 percent” a stereotypical college spring break atmosphere. Her resort was filled with college kids, and people were paying anywhere from $50-80 for day passes into her resort because of MTV.
Merry said he saw at least five fights break out during the week on the beach. The police tried to intervene but couldn’t really do anything about the drinking because it was completely out of control, according to Merry.
“One guy fell off the balcony and died,” Merry said. “We witnessed a girl stagger around a weed patch for a good 10 minutes by herself drunk out of her mind. Girls would stumble into our room at night in bikinis so drunk they could barely stand. The guys were aggressive. There was strip-pong games, body shots on the beach [and] tons of drugs – you could smell the weed in the air constantly, and I witnessed drug deals right in front of me.”
But the typical spring break experience is not universal among college students.
The Spectrum’s survey indicated that about 68 percent of UB students are not planning on going on vacation – 44.5 percent are going home, 12 percent are staying at UB and 20 percent are working.
Sharlynn Daun Barnett, UB’s Wellness Education Services Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention specialist, said that the majority of college students don’t actually have the stereotypical college spring break experience.
“I don’t want to support the stereotype [of spring break] because students are supposed to use spring break to relax and take care of themselves so they can be rejuvenated – whatever that means for them,” Barnett said.
In 2014, The Century Council, a national not-for-profit and a leader in the fight against underage drinking, conducted a national survey of college students ages 18 to 22 and found that 58 percent of college students don’t think the media accurately portrays how students spend their time during spring break.
According to the survey, 31 percent of students said they went home to visit family and friends; 26 percent of students worked; 22 percent studied or caught up on schoolwork; and 14 percent participated in an alternative spring break.
The Wellness Education Center planned a Lead the Break Campaign to promote productive spring break plans other than vacations. UB students can get their picture taken at five different locations in the next two weeks holding a sign that indicates their spring break plans. Pictures will be posted to the Center’s Facebook page, and participants can tag themselves and encourage their friends to like their picture. The top three students with the most likes will receive a $25 campus cash prize.
Barnett said the spring break culture leaves students who do not go away feeling left out and thinking, ‘Why am I not doing that crazy thing on an island?’ The Lead the Break Campaign is meant to help students understand the stereotypical spring break experience is not mandatory – and can be risky.
“One drink leaves your body per hour, no matter how big or small you are,” Barnett said. “In a vacation setting, you drink earlier in the day and then eat, but you don’t start over after you eat. Earlier drinks are still in your body, and so, therefore, you might drink more than you normally would.”
For students who do plan on drinking while on vacation – or at home – Barnett said there are ways to enjoy themselves while staying safe, including tracking how much you are drinking and alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
For students traveling to tropical places, the importance of staying properly hydrated cannot be understated, she said.
Barnett said students who make bad choices while on spring break come back to school exhausted, having not been reasonable with their bodies, having not gotten enough rest or stayed hydrated and having overdone it.
Barnett and the Wellness Education Center use blood alcohol concentration cards to teach students about healthy levels of alcohol. She said that when students talk about being drunk, they are really talking about the feeling in the “green zone” – between .05 and .07 blood alcohol concentration, where most people get buzzed.
“Sometimes the spring break mentality causes people to overdo it,” Barnett said. “They drink more in a shorter period of time because they have more time on their hands or because they play drinking games and don’t have a choice – you drink if you win and you drink if you lose.”
Barnett encourages students to pace their drinks to one per hour and use the green zone so that they are not going to be throwing up or passing out and will be able to get back to their hotels at the end of the night.
“The [spring break] culture is binge-drinking,” Merry said. “It’s all college students escaping reality for a week.”
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states binge drinking typically happens when men consume five or more drinks, and when women consume four or more drinks, in about two hours.
Binge drinking is common among college students; the institute estimates that nearly half of all college students binge drink, and these numbers rise during spring break.
A study conducted by the American College of Health found that the average male reported drinking 18 drinks per day and the average female reported up to 10 drinks per day during spring break, well above the safe levels of alcohol consumption.
Barnett also said students in a spring break environment may choose other drugs beside alcohol, like marijuana or prescription drugs. It is important to know what is in the drugs before they are consumed, and to know what the side effects are, according to Barnett. Mixing prescription drugs with alcohol multiplies the effects of the drugs and can be fatal.
Barnett stresses students don’t have to spend money or go far to have a relaxing or productive spring break. A majority of UB students who participate in the Wellness Center’s Lead the Break Campaign use the week off of school to visit family or friends, catch up on homework, work on their theses or to earn money, according to Barnett.
UB also offers Alternative Spring Break trips to the Louisiana Wetlands, South Dakota and the Dominican Republic, as well as the City of Buffalo.
But there will always be students – like Hall – who have a crazy story to tell, an arrest they’d rather forget and nights they don’t totally remember.
Alyssa McClure is the Copy Chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org