Jennifer Summers works to prevent alcohol abuse
Jennifer Summers sits at a large desk in a small office. A large stack of files and papers sits next to her computer — studies on college drinking, notes on programs she wants to implement, data that she’s analyzing for the best methods of substance abuse prevention.
Summers, three years out of grad school, is often smiling and dressed in stylish clothing, her freckled face and blue eyes framed by long black hair. But when she starts talking drinking and drugs, she’s all business. She easily rattles off facts from her studies — Summers knows her stuff. She has to. She’s responsible for looking at substance abuse for the 24,000 students who attend the University of Oregon.
As the university’s director of substance abuse prevention and student success, Summers has been the driving force behind efforts to control alcohol and drug abuse since 2011. @@checked link, title [email protected]@
Supported by partners in Eugene and on campus, Summers is responsible for coordinating the prevention efforts for the campus community.
It’s no small task.
In recent years, the UO has developed a reputation — fairly or not — as a party school. In August of 2013, the university landed at No. 20 on the Princeton Review’s list of party schools. According to violations recorded by the 2012 Clery Act, the UO was ninth in the nation for its rate of on-campus alcohol violations among universities with enrollment of more than 20,000, with 38 of every 1,000 students cited for violation.
In the past two years, both the numbers of on-campus violations and alcohol-related medical transports have decreased, with violations going from 1,030 in 2010-2011 to 932 in 2012-2013 and alcohol-related transports going from 64 to 32 between 2011 and 2013. However, it’s still a pressing concern. Fifty-nine percent of medical transports on campus in 2012 involved alcohol, according to UOPD. The number of alcohol-related transports is worrying for Vice President of Student Affairs Robin Holmes.
“There’s certain times of the year, there seems to be more and more transports,” Holmes said. “That’s really concerning me and concerning our staff that students are not only deciding to utilize drugs or alcohol but they’re using so much that they’re in physical danger.”
As the UO’s student body grew rapidly between 2009 and 2011, so did the issue of alcohol abuse. However, as enrollment increased rapidly, the number of administrators to address the problem has remained small.
The problem became apparent in 2011, when the number of alcohol-related hospital transports on campus jumped to 64 from the previous year’s 36.
It was then that the UO realized the need to enlist someone to help curb the increase.
Nearly 500 miles away at Boise State University, Summers noticed the announcement for the UO’s new position — a position to promote responsible behavior around alcohol and substance use. After working as a health educator of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs at Boise for three years — where she would work up to 60 hours a week — Summers had the experience for the job. Two years before, she had been integral in implementing the school’s smoking ban, and through years of training, had developed a passion for public health.
Summers applied. From a nationwide pool of candidates, the UO awarded her the job.
Christina Berg was Summers’ manager since Summers began at Boise State as a grad student and witnessed her growth as a health educator. That growth was driven by Summers’s combination of knowledge and her passion for her work, Berg said.
“She’s very open-minded and willing to learn,” Berg said. “The part that augments that is her passion.”
Summers had an interest in health and was interested in ways to improve care for the body since her days growing up in Alaska.
“I had always wanted to help people,” Summers said. “I was fascinated by how to take care of the body better.”
Summers was set on the path to public health at the UO, where she studied psychology her sophomore year and worked as a peer health educator before transferring to the University of Idaho to pursue a degree in nutrition. But her passion for prevention began when she was working at a hospital as a nutritionist her senior year of college.
Lower your fats, lower your salts, she told a triple-bypass patient one day. In response, the man put his hand on her arm.
“And he said, ‘Oh sweetheart, save it … I’m going to stop at McDonald’s on my way out of here,’” Summers said. “And I remember feeling so heartbroken and thinking … there’s got to be a way we can educate people about health before they get to the hospital.”
That instance taught Summers the importance of preventing an addiction before it began — the same mentality she applies in her job now.
Prevention, however, is a tricky field. Substance abuse prevention is usually reactive. In the field, solutions are too often triggered by tragedies. Though the UO’s prevention efforts were not launched in reaction to a tragedy, Summers works tirelessly to prevent them.
The majority of her work involves community outreach, research and education. Summers conducts research on campus through programs like AlcoholEdu to quantify the issue of substance abuse among students and identify high risk behaviors. Additionally, she works with students to educate them about safe drinking behaviors.
This year, Summers worked with Fraternity and Sorority Life Director Justin Shukas and student peer health educator Ashley Penington to implement an education program for organization leaders to recognize signs of an alcohol emergency. The program, meant to teach students skills like CPR to address emergency situations, started this winter and will continue into the spring.
One of Summers’s main focuses is understanding the problem on campus in order to understand how to prevent it.
“Since I’ve been here, one of my main goals has been to look at what is the problem? How do we define it? A lot of the conversations have been very qualitative (before my position was established),” Summers said. “When I first got here, it was stepping back and saying, ‘What is the problem? How do we start?’”
The problem is still difficult to define. Since Summers’s position was established, high risk drinking, transports and alcohol violations have decreased. However, these numbers only represent part of the issue. The UO’s records of transports and violations only include on-campus incidents, and it is estimated that 70 percent of first-year students drink off-campus, according to AlcoholEdu.
Summers is continuing to try and define the issue.
“It’s always an ongoing process to continually evaluate UO culture and ways to decrease high-risk behavior,” she said.
Though it’s difficult, Holmes does not doubt that Summers is perfect for the job.
“Partly it’s because of her passion for educating students and partly it is her expertise,” Holmes said. “I think you can be someone who’s really smart, but without that passion and commitment, it’s not as effective. She really lives and breathes this.”
In the future, the UO plans to hire more assistance for Summers.
“We need to continue to build out her office, because she’s fantastic but she’s one person,” Holmes said.
In the meantime, Summers’ work is far from done.
“You’ve got to recognize the small accomplishments but still know you’ve got your work cut out for you,” she said.
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