College. In today’s culture, it seems like the word is synonymous with partying. On any given night driving down University Avenue, you can see lines of college kids waiting outside of bars. The fear of missing out can be more powerful than the knowledge that you have an 8am lecture the next morning. There is even a running joke that “you aren’t an alcoholic until you leave college.” Seriously? This is an overwhelming and dangerous atmosphere disguised as normal, harmless and just part of “the college experience.” 

As a rising senior at The University of Florida, I am no stranger to this culture. But I want to use my platform to help others navigate this culture in a healthy way that allows you the “college experience” without establishing negative and unhealthy patterns that could lead to addiction later on in life. 

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from pastor Andy Stanley: “In light of my past experience, my current circumstance and my future hopes and dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?” Any time I’m faced with a decision, I try to evaluate my course of action by asking myself this question. This is a very practical way of considering the past, present, and future implications of a choice and evaluate all aspects of a decision. 

Using this premise, here are five tips for navigating the college experience in a healthy way. 

1. Make and Spend Time with Friends OUTSIDE of a Party Scene

I really can’t stress this enough. People bond through experiences; it’s just human nature. With the friends that you make in class, through a club, in a sorority or fraternity, or living accommodations, make sure that you are doing activities together besides going out. Go on hikes or walks, study groups, to the student gym, coffee dates or run errands. All of these activities allow you to make valuable connections with people around you and will deepen the relationships you develop with them.

2. Know Your Family History

If addiction or substance abuse runs in your family, you may have to be more cautious than your peers when it comes to substance use. I watched my grandmother struggle with alcoholism when she lived with us during my teenage years, so I am always acutely aware of the fact that it can happen to anyone and that there is a genetic component to addiction. Knowledge is power and recognizing that you may be at greater risk for addiction can help you make wiser decisions for the sake of your future. 

3. Get Comfortable with the Word NO

I don’t just mean this in a “just say no to drugs” way. I mean that there will be an endless stream of opportunities to go out, to go to parties and to go to other events. Realistically, you can’t make it to everything and prioritize your grades and your health. I remember feeling like I would miss EVERYTHING if I missed SOMETHING during my freshman fall. That made me feel really overwhelmed and I definitely didn’t get enough sleep. It’s not a healthy pattern and feeling like you have to be at every event can lead to you feeling like you have to try everything. Don’t feel obligated to go to something because “all your friends are going” or “you don’t want to miss out.” Take care of first things first — your physical and mental health — especially during the school week. The more comfortable you are saying no for the sake of your grades, your health and your future, the better!

4. Know the Available Mental Health Resources Your School Provides

Most college campuses have resources to help students preserve and even improve their mental health. Know what and where these resources are and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Addiction and mental health issues are never something to be ashamed of. When you ask for help, you are fighting for your future. 

5. Be GOAL Driven, Not FUN Driven

I don’t mean that you should never have fun. Fun is also a part of the college experience and part of life! I mean that it is really helpful to have specific goals that you are working towards in every season. The “fun” side of college can quickly become detrimental to future aspirations if you do not put safeguards in place for your future and your health. Having goals that you are actively working towards leads you to make better choices socially and academically. Otherwise, it can be really easy to fall into unhealthy patterns and behaviors. 

Make no mistake, there are people who go out and binge drink most nights of the week. On the surface, they may seem totally fine, make good grades and be super involved, but this is NOT healthy behavior. At best, this practice is still harmful to your physical health, can cause memory loss and increases the risk of being involved in violence or an accident. At worst, this is the beginning of a disease and patterns that can interfere with long term goals and success. I think it’s also important to remember that people don’t set out to have addictions. Having solid goals can prevent you from accidentally ending up somewhere you don’t want to be simply because you didn’t set out to NOT get there. 

Managing mental health and preventing addiction in college is not a simple task and it’s not often talked about. But being prepared for the realities of college life is a great way to set yourself up for success. I hope these pieces of advice are a practical and helpful place to start.