Sober Truths


The celebratory parties outside Spectrum Stadium had been underway long before UCF began its 45-27 defeat of Stanford on Sept. 13. Most of the tailgate scenes were what you’d expect — flags, finger sandwiches and anywhere from 5-to-40 percent alcohol by volume. One, however, stood out. Not just because about 75 people showed up. Or because a live radio show was broadcast from that spot. The real eyebrow-raising came when the party’s host, Tom Hall ’16PhD, handed out the party essentials: snow cones, chicken, mac n cheese, and Coke and water to be mixed with … more Coke and water.

A sober tailgate party,” says Hall.

He knows what you might be thinking: Sober tailgate party. Isn’t that an oxymoron?

“That’s the point,” says Hall, “because you know who the skeptics [about not drinking on game day] are? It’s the adults, not the students.”

He talked about a surprising new study that even he calls a phenomenon: The number of high schools seniors who report having drunk an alcoholic drink has decreased significantly, with more than 77.7 percent in 1991 compared to 53.3 percent in 2018.

“The idea that ‘Everyone in college drinks’ is not supported by data,” says Hall, who earned his doctorate in sociology. “It’s a misperception that’s been perpetuated only because we thought it was true 20 years ago. We have to adjust our thinking and figure out what to do with this new narrative and create new norms in line with students beliefs and behaviors.”

For the past 22 years, Hall has been one of the lead authors of that revised narrative. He’s provided substance-abuse and mental-health treatment for people of all ages, and since 2004 has developed services for people with substance-use disorders at UCF, most recently as the associate director for UCF Student Health Services and director of alcohol and other drug prevention services. In the process, he’s also identified the needs of college students who don’t want to imbibe.

“Only a minority of the students I see [in therapy] truly have a substance-use disorder,” Hall says. “The majority of the students I see are trying to manage social expectations. They associate positive feelings and ‘cutting loose’ with alcohol. The fun might be real, but it is not related to the alcohol. It’s the socializing — the thinking not the drinking. We have to encourage students to challenge the expectation that alcohol equates to fun, and to challenge the falsehoods so many adults have spread. Otherwise, we’ll have to deal with the bigger problems of dependence and abuse.”

After earning a master’s in social work from Florida State University, he went on to help start an adolescent in-patient unit at Lakeland Regional Medical Center, counseled children experiencing bereavement, and later worked in private practice treating patients with substance use disorders.

He’s spent a lifetime asking a constant question: How can we make this better?

Hall came to UCF in 2004 to head up alcohol-abuse prevention programs after a four-year stint at a private college in Florida. There, despite stringent rules about drinking, Hall saw the truths of a “dry campus” whenever he walked by the trash cans.

“It was a ‘humid’ campus, not dry,” he says. “Simply telling students ‘You can’t drink, you can’t drink’ obviously wasn’t working.”

So he created coalitions with students, administrators and local businesses to offer alternatives. Soon there were campus-wide barbecues and block parties, and bar owners were providing free soda, so students could socialize but not feel compelled to drink.

By tracing the dangerous problem of alcohol abuse back to its root (a so-called “social norm”), Hall began to do the unthinkable: change the culture. And then UCF came calling.

“I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: This isn’t Kansas anymore. I went from a campus of 2,000 students to one with more than 40,000, which seemed overwhelming at times. But thanks to the university’s support, we were able to scale up what worked for a small, private college to a large, public university.”

The enormity reached a critical point at a tailgate party in September 2005. There, outside the Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium), Hall stood 50 yards from the spot where off-duty UCF police officer Mario Jenkins was shot. In the hours after the tragedy, Hall questioned if his work were worthwhile. He spent the rest of the weekend using yard tools to exhaust his negative thoughts on a tree stump behind his house.

At the end of the weekend, he was left with a pile of mulch and a singular thought: Focus on one student, one small win, at a time.

Hall consumed himself with research on alcohol abuse and implemented a variety of common-sense programs to address it on campus. The U.S. Department of Education recognized his work as a Model of Exemplary Practice — a rare designation that puts UCF in limited company. Hall helped develop a curriculum to open conversations in high schools about alcohol on college campuses before students get there. He has chipped away at misperceptions with the kind of energy he used on that tree stump.

One student. One win at a time.

A student named Page, who transferred to UCF in January 2016 and asked to remain anonymous, became a win.

“When I looked for a new school, one of my top criteria was finding support in my recovery from a substance-abuse disorder,” says Page. “I saw right away that Tom had put UCF at the forefront instead of shying away from it.”

Page went from hanging out at the support meetings to working alongside Hall to grow the Collegiate Recovery Community, which uses UCF’s network of resources to integrate prevention, treatment and recovery from substance use.

“Tom truly makes the students, not academia, his first priority,” says Page. “That’s why it works.”

Developing the CRC became part of Page’s recovery. Giving back to the community. Focusing on others. Moving everything forward. In that process, Page helped organize Sober Knights and thePoint After Dark — events for students, by students. They go bowling, play paintball, watch movies. And they meet each other at sober tailgate parties.

As Hall transitions to his new role as the director of the Orange County Drug Free Coalition, he points all attention to the data that at once baffles him and lifts him up: 40 percent of incoming freshman do not drink and do not want to drink.

“The data are encouraging,” he says.

And so he’s started a new narrative. One where students recovering from substance abuse hang out with students who have never touched alcohol. One that reflects the reality of today rather than the perceived norms of 20 years ago. In this story, Page graduates from UCF, lands a great job out of state, and takes with him a willingness to engage co-workers in conversations about substance abuse.

Meanwhile, here at Hall’s alma mater, a sober tailgate party is no longer an oxymoron with a crooked question mark. It’s part of a new beginning.

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