Safety Vs. Community

by Nathan Worden

If you ask a Student Affairs professional what their top five priorities are, I’ll bet you laundry money for a month that both “safety” and “community building” make the list.
And yet, would you believe me if I proffered that these two priorities can come into conflict with one another?

Here’s a fun example: A fraternity at Chapman University had a tradition of competing in the “Gallon Challenge” where students would attempt to drink an entire gallon of milk in one hour. While not impossible, few are able to complete the challenge because of three “vomit-inducing” ingredients in milk: lactose, calcium, and casein. The problem with lactose is that your body can only process so much of it at a time, and when consumed rapidly, it often results in projectile vomit.

Many participants actively tried to put on a gut-churning performance, and because the event was held in a public space in the residential area, it grew into a community spectacle.

Obviously, this presents a safety concern. Evacuating one’s gastric contents can have many harmful effects; aspiration of vomit into the lungs, risk of exchange of body fluids, and electrolyte and water loss to name a few.

However, the fraternity argued that they were building community because so many students would stop and engage in the collective environment, and that this would theoretically increase the likelihood of new students persisting in college given the strong relation between engagement and graduation rates.

So now what? It’s “choose your own adventure” time: do you choose safety, and put an end to the pointless spilling of body fluids? Or do you choose community, and up(chuck) involvement numbers along with your lunch?

From a Student Affairs perspective, the type and quality of community that was being built as a result of this event was questionable. Just because something can attract attention and a crowd doesn’t mean it can create a healthy, positive community.

But from a participant perspective, the health risks of milk chugging were minor in comparison to the fun, albeit odd enjoyment of a community event.
What ended up happening?

The Office of Residence Life decided to put an end to the event, citing the safety concerns and the unsanitary mess the gathering created.

Even if you saw that outcome from a mile off, its important to point out that for the students, the conflict between safety and community was a real one.

Sometimes we forget to see things from the student perspective, especially when safety is involved. And while this doesn’t change the outcome, theway we educate students can be much more compassionate when we understand how students make their decisions. 

At the end of the day, safety and community are things that compliment each other more than conflict. This example of a conflict between the two exists mainly due to a difference in perspective between students and administrators. Our ability to be effective and compassionate professionals hinges on our ongoing pursuit of understanding the perspective of the other.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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