Slope Day at Cornell University in 2014 (Cornell University Photography: photo by Lindsay France.)

Alessandra Rigamonti stepped through the crowd at a Cornell fraternity party when she noticed a very drunk girl on the dance floor, with a much less drunk guy holding her up. Rigamonti, who was a freshman from Baltimore, went to ask if she was okay. The girl threw up.

Luckily for Rigamonti, she’s okay with vomit. Because she deals with a lot of it at work.

As she helped the girl, she had to decide whether the girl needed an ambulance or just a friend to make sure she didn’t drink any more that night.

Her co-workers, also Cornell students, were busy too. One was talking to a drunk and furious student who had locked herself into the bathroom. Others were helping another angry, too-drunk girl who punched the president of the fraternity when she was asked to leave.

They were all working for a student-founded, student-run nonprofit called Cayuga’s Watchers, designed to keep people safer at parties. The idea is simple: They’re not there to get anyone in trouble. They’re not there to stop people from drinking. They want people to have fun.

They don’t want people to get sick, go crazy, get in fights, smash furniture, pass out, decide it would be funny to climb onto the roof … or any of the other bad things that can happen when people get too drunk.

And a lot of that can be avoided, they believe, if someone just steps in with a light touch.

[Everyone’s getting drunk: A guide to curbing college underage drinking for parents of freshmen]

So the watchers get trained, then get paid $10 an hour to go to social events. At parties they look and act like most other people there, holding a red cup, talking, maybe dancing a little — but they stay sober, and keep an eye on things. Last year, at Slope Day, the school’s biggest party of the year, Cayuga’s Watchers helped almost 100 people during the four-hour outdoor concert.

The students who founded the group had the idea after seeing a friend get terribly drunk freshman year and realizing they had no idea how best to help. They studied similar groups at Haverford and Dartmouth, and formed a nonprofit, independent from the university, its $60,000 budget funded largely with grants and donations from alums.

“It’s important for our organization to be from students for students,” said Shane Moore, who’s now the president of Cayuga’s Watchers, “friends looking out for one another. It’s very clear there’s opportunity for a lot of university rules to be broken at events. We wanted the priority to be keeping people safe, not whether rules are being broken.”

“They’re really critical partners for us,” said Laura Santacrose, health initiatives coordinator at Cornell. “They’re the ones that are there in the moment and have the capacity to change the environment, change the culture.”

The culture can be dangerous. By one estimate, more than 1,800 college students nationally die every year from accidents related to drinking, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“In a recent survey of Cornell students, 40.5 percent of respondents said they engaged in high-risk drinking at least once a week in the past two weeks,” said Drew Lord, a sophomore from Connecticut who helps run Cayuga’s Watchers. “That mirrors the national average.

“It’s college.”

[What happened when this college student drank too much, too quickly]

They’re certainly not going to solve the problem of binge drinking, or keep every kid out of trouble. But they’re working to minimize the harm done.

Students talked with university officials to prepare the training for employees.

Recruiting them is easy. This fall they held up a sign at an information session for clubs on campus: Do you want to get paid to go to parties?

“We had more than 200 people sign up,” Lord said. “It’s a really easy sell.”

If they’re accepted, they can choose which events to work, and go with friends who are also watchers.

Alessandra Rigamonti (Photo by Brittany Proffitt) Alessandra Rigamonti (Photo by Brittany Proffitt)

It wouldn’t be a good job for someone with an agenda, Rigamonti said, or someone who’s judgmental. Or for anyone who gets sick when they smell or see vomit.

A friend told her about the group and encouraged her to apply; she had already taken on some version of that role with her own friends, making sure they got home safely if they had had too much to drink.

Still, she felt nervous when she went to work at her first party. She was a freshman – would the seniors at the fraternity listen if she told them something was not okay? The chapter had invited the watchers to be there, but she wasn’t sure how seriously her advice would be taken.

And after the team of four watchers met with a few of the fraternity leaders just before the party’s official start time to get a rundown of basics such as what kind of alcohol was being served and where, they had the very awkward job of looking like the students who were so eager to be at the party that they arrived an hour or more before most other guests … and no, they didn’t want to play beer pong. No drink, thanks.

Once the party started getting crowded, though, Rigamonti felt her nerves calm. She talked with people, moving from room to room to look for anything troubling, sometimes pretending to get another drink. She had been taught to watch for four types of problems.

The thirsty partygoer is the one who sets out to get drunk that night. “You just see them throwing back drink after drink,” she said.

The rowdy partygoer is getting belligerent, getting on furniture, breaking things, maybe starting a fight.

The creepy partygoer is making one person there uncomfortable; pulling someone who is having trouble walking upstairs to a private room, or dancing closely even as the other keeps backing away.

And the sick partygoer could be someone who needs a safe place to rest — or someone who needs to get to a hospital quickly.

For each type, the watchers have a variety of tricks up their sleeves. They start small and can escalate as needed, including calling police or EMTs.

With the thirsty, it’s easier than you might think, Moore said. “One of the co-founders was talking to a friend about the idea, and the friend said, ‘You’re never going to be able to take alcohol away from a person.’ The co-founder said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll see.

“’Mind if I have a sip of your drink?’ He puts it behind him on the table. Fifteen minutes later, he asks, ‘Where did your drink go?’

“You don’t even need to take a sip,” Moore said. “Sometimes another 40 minutes [without alcohol] is all somebody needs to be perfectly fine.”

And people that far gone are easy to confuse, distract, or deceive.

Rigamonti sometimes offers to get someone a drink, pours a little of gin, say, on her finger and rubs it around the top of the red cup, then fills it with tonic. “Have you ever given someone a glass of water and they throw it back at you, ‘No! This is water! I want a drink!’

“I can’t make orange juice taste like alcohol but if somebody’s already drunk I can make it smell like alcohol.”

With the rowdies, they try to find a friend who might talk some sense. But often they try to rise to their level – jump on a table and act ever crazier and, when the person is thinking he’s just met his new best friend, lead him over to a game or the dance floor.

With the creepy, sometimes it just takes a moment to let someone’s head clear enough to realize she does not want to be in this situation, Rigamonti said. She might see if a girl has a friend nearby to gauge whether things look okay. Or she could interrupt, telling the girl her mascara smeared, and offering to take her to the bathroom to fix it. She could just ask if everything is all right. Or she could distract the guy — “Don’t we have a class together? I’m Alessandra!” — and try to keep him chatting long enough to let the other person make a decision.

With those about to throw up, they try to get them to a bathroom or a trash can and then make the call about  how sick they really are. Often it’s obvious. But when it’s not clear right away – as with the girl at the first party that Rigamonti worked – she thinks it’s helpful to have someone who’s just thinking about safety, not about what university or fraternity officials might do if an ambulance is called.

Among Cornell’s more than 60 Greek houses, there are groups that don’t invite them in. They’re trying to change that.

Cayuga’s Watchers also teach groups on campus some basics about alcohol’s effects and their bystander intervention techniques. “We’ve only been around for two years and we have trained 1,500 students,” Lord said — more than 10 percent of the student body.

The group has been very well received by students, said Tim Marchell, director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives. “It has really advanced the campus conversation about the importance of looking out for others.”

When that message comes from students, it can really take hold.

Rigamonti, who’s a pre-med junior now, said her job changed the way she sees her role at social events now. She’s much more likely to step in. And when an older fraternity brother laughed off her suggestion at a party she was working at last year, she was sure of herself when she told him, “This is actually more serious than you think.”

That night as a freshman, she was still learning how to help. She had to figure out how sick the girl was, asking her basic questions like her name to gauge how alert she was, listening to her breathing pattern to see if it had slowed or sped up dramatically, feeling her hands to see if they were clammy.

The other watchers had soothed the girl in the bathroom, ensured she wasn’t in medical danger, and gotten her to leave.(Without yelling, “You’re crazy! Will you get out of here?!” like everyone wanted to do.) They had calmed down the violent one, and made sure she had a safe way to get home, too.

Rigamonti talked with the girl, some fraternity leaders, and the other watchers, and they decided she didn’t need an ambulance. Rigamonti reached a friend of hers and waited, an hour after the party had ended, by the girl’s side until the friend arrived and had learned how best to care for her overnight.

She was going to be okay.

Rigamonti left the party thinking, “This is amazing. This could do so much good.”

 

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