Mixed drinks and experiences: The 21st Birthday Project aims to bridge the gap

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Lafene Health Center offers affordable medical care along with other services to students, faculty and staff of Kansas State. (Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

Lafene Health Center launched the 21st Birthday Project just over a year ago to reach students turning 21 years old.

The program sends an email to Kansas State students ahead of their birthday, inviting them to Lafene for a session with a peer adviser to learn about alcohol safety. The session is quick, only about 10-15 minutes, and is incentivized by offering students coupons and cookies.

“We want to celebrate their 21st birthday with them, it’s a big deal,” said Megan Katt, registered dietitian nutritionist and health educator at Lafene.

Katt brought this program to K-State after seeing Virginia Tech present about it at a conference.

“It’s all about harm reduction, we don’t want the students to think we’re judging them or looking down on them for engaging in these activities,” Katt said. “If they’re going to do it, we want them to be safe.”

Attendance for the program has increased this year, Katt said. At the end of 2018, only 12 percent of invited students utilized the program. That number rose to 15 percent this year.

“It seems like a small number, but when I think about it in terms of numbers of students, we’ve had like over 300 students come through our doors for it,” Katt said. “So when I think about it in terms of that, that’s really meaningful.”

To target a broader range of ages, Katt said WellCAT ambassadors do alcohol education presentations for underage students, which are available by request for groups on campus.

Katt said the 21st Birthday Project can be valuable to people who choose not to drink for their birthday as well.

“If they’re not drinkers, we still want to get them that information … so they can be a resource for their peers,” Katt said.

Luz Cobian, junior in chemical engineering, decided to participate in the project before her 21st birthday in September.

Cobian said the experience was quick, but she learned some things she didn’t know, such as how to differentiate between drinks with regard to their alcohol content.

“I wasn’t aware, I guess, beforehand of how much stronger some drinks are than others,” Cobian said.

Drew Galloway, junior in mass communications, attended the program last week. He said it was easier to talk to someone his own age, but he didn’t feel like he learned much that he didn’t already know.

“At fraternity and sorority life they send videos about alcohol facts, and how much is too much … and it’s 45 minutes long,” Galloway said. “We have to watch it every year and it never changes.”

One part of the project asks students to identify one risky behavior they will avoid doing when they celebrate their birthday.

“I said that I am not going to mix alcohol with energy drinks,” Galloway said. “I don’t really mix alcohol with energy drinks anyway.”

Katt said that the peer advising aspect is an essential element of the project.

“I think, just with all the pressures and things that college students go through … just that opportunity to come talk to a student who is also dealing with those issues is very valuable, versus coming in and talking to a therapist, who is at a much different place in life,” Katt said.

Next semester, Lafene will expand the concept of peer mentoring into a “WellCAT Coach” Program, which will offer similar peer wellbeing coaching on a broad range of topics such as academics, stress and eating habits, Katt said, which the 21st Birthday Project will fall under.

“We are making improvements to the program all the time based on that data that we collect, just really trying to get the word out,” Katt said.

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.