At a Chicago bar in the beginning of Fall Quarter, Weinberg second-year Barb Burns saw a student cornering her friend into a wall. Burns says the pair was hidden in plain sight, standing right next to the populated dance floor, but amid the chaos of strobe lights, the crowd and loud music, no one seemed to notice the unwanted advance.
When Burns saw her friend angling away from the student, she approached her and asked if she wanted to go elsewhere. She took her hand, and they disappeared into the crowd together.
“I think a lot can be said for what’s not spoken,” Burns says. “Especially when there are people around, when you’re under the influence of whatever substance, it is hard to get out of a situation.”
With the possibility of incidents like this, Burns and her friends take certain precautions when they go out. Safegaurds include sharing locations via cell phones and ensuring that they travel in groups. Throughout the night, they check up on each other to make sure everyone is comfortable and that they’re up-to-date with exit plans. They also cover their drinks with their hands — or with lids, if available — and sometimes bring pepper spray.
Nightlife as a Northwestern student can be overwhelming. In addition to the overstimulating atmosphere, students must consider how to drink safely, coordinate transportation and navigate interactions.
According to Northwestern’s 2016 Alcohol Data Dashboards, 87% of students have consumed alcohol at least once in off-campus residences. Bars, restaurants, fraternity houses and dorms are other common places for drinking and parties. While the majority of events hosted by social clubs have safety protocols, students must also adopt ways of looking out for themselves and their friends.
“The biggest idea is that the fraternity is not worth as much as someone’s personal well-being.”- Shaafi Flener, NU IFC president and Weinberg second-year
university-based social groups
university-based social groups
university-based social groups
Greek organizations have a number of University-mandated and personally set rules meant to ensure student safety at events. Northwestern Interfraternity Council (IFC) president and Weinberg second-year Shaafi Flener says all fraternities must register their upcoming events with the IFC. If the event is off-campus, it must also be registered with the University. The registration process keeps fraternity events on record and requires them to adhere to a standard of safety.
While alcohol is prohibited in campus venues, it is allowed in off-campus events if the space is registered with the University and all participants are over 21. A fraternity must contact venues with a safety checklist that the IFC and the University’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life approves to ensure it is up to University policy. This criteria includes a requirement to provide free water, closed containers for any drinks, safe fire escapes and a bouncer at the door to confirm attendee ages.
Flener is also trying to develop rotations of IFC risk managers that will visit local venues in advance for background checks to provide additional security. While fraternity-hosted events already have certified risk managers, he plans to have one additional IFC risk manager for every 10 attendees.
Last year, the Office of Community Standards (OCS) investigated Alpha Epsilon Pi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon for alleged non-consensual druggings of multiple individuals at the fraternities’ houses. In light of those events, Flener hopes to heighten the standards of event hosting and improve methods of fraternity accountability.
“I think one of the biggest problems with accountability has been that we haven’t had things like [rotations of risk managers] in the past,” Flener says. “We haven’t had things like standards and boards to actually say, ‘Hey, these things happened. What are we going to do about it?’”
His goals for the IFC are to set stricter rules for venues, promote IFC and University violation forms and be more involved in student policy violations.
Fraternities are required to report all policy violations to the University so that OCS can investigate the case. The IFC reviews the OCS ruling and decides a method of punishment, including options like a student’s removal from the fraternity or a fine. Only the University can expel a student from the school, but OCS investigations are taken into account when determining expulsion decisions. Flener hopes that the IFC will take a more active role in investigating cases and evaluating OCS rulings.
“The biggest idea is that the fraternity is not worth as much as someone’s personal well-being,” Flener says.
Weinberg second-year Sammie Hesekiel, a member of the sorority Delta Gamma (DG), says that cups supplied at Greek life parties now have lids to avoid drink spiking. She adds that she feels safest at Greek events because their attendance is generally composed of the same people each time. The sense of familiarity gives her comfort.
“It’s good because almost always you’re at places where other DG people are so you could turn around and you’ll always see a familiar face,” Hesekiel says.
Cultural affinity groups on campus are another facet of the Northwestern social scene. Student-run organizations like Chinese Students Association (CSA) and the Korean American Student Association (KASA) host events for undergraduates interested in connecting with others of the same culture or learning about a new one.
In the first mandatory meeting for new KASA members, the executive team presents slides about rape culture and sexual assault. They highlight the club’s zero tolerance policy for sexual assault, battery, rape, stalking and hazing and tell inductees about the club’s blacklist, a record of individuals banned from KASA events.
In addition, they talk about the significance of power dynamics in East Asian cultures.
“Not only Korea, but East Asian culture in general, if someone’s older than you, they’re superior in a sense,” says Weinberg fourth-year Sean Lee, wellness chair of KASA. “A lot of underclassmen might do something even if they don’t want to, because that’s just kind of how the culture revolves.”
McCormick fourth-year Haolan Zhan, co-president and former social chair of CSA, says they assign volunteers or executive team members as risk managers to check on members’ safety and well-being during their events.
CSA also has an anonymous feedback form where members can inform the executive team of any dangerous incidents. Zhan says the team has a written procedure based on how the school defines sexual assault, which can result in the perpetrator being removed from the organization. CSA gives the survivor agency to decide what happens after, because Zhan believes the school can sometimes do more harm than good when dealing with sexual assault cases.
“It’s honestly how best you want to support survivors and the people involved,” Zhan says. “Things should happen at their pace and what they’re comfortable with.”
Before first-years set foot on campus, they are informed on topics surrounding alcohol, consent and sexual assault through the University’s mandatory True Northwestern Dialogue (TND) seminars.
During Wildcat Welcome, incoming students continue TND programming through a combination of large group presentations and small group dialogues led by student Peer Advisors (PAs).
In one dialogue called the “Student Body” TND, students attend a peer-performed play about consent and sexual assault before breaking into smaller groups to discuss Unversity-scripted questions and debrief.
Weinberg second-year and PA Andrew Guo says the discussions he facilitated with his PA group often went beyond the script given to him by the University. One time, a student asked him what to do at a party if they saw a friend interacting with a seemingly dangerous stranger.
“There are so many real life situations that we’ve been through that the script doesn’t cover but the freshmen really want to know about,” Guo says. “When our personal experiences come in, that definitely helps a lot.”
McCormick second-year Lena Sylvan adds that discussions with her PA group often turned to discontent with what the University covers in TNDs. She says her group felt that the curriculum left students behind by assuming that first-years knew about concepts like bystander intervention. These honest evaluations helped create meaningful discussion.
“It was beneficial for them to critique the TND because it challenged them more to think about what was wrong: Where were the gaps? What are the gaps? Do we all know what those gaps are?” Sylvan says.
The TNDs also highlight the Amnesty through Responsible Action protocol. This policy withholds disciplinary actions for students who have been caught drinking underage if they’ve called for medical assistance due to alcohol or drug consumption.
According to data from the OCS, Northwestern issued 121 amnesties in the 2020-2022 school years. Second-year Joel* was granted amnesty in Fall 2021.
It was the first time Joel* had ever drank beyond his limit. After showing up to his friend’s dorm on North Campus, he began taking shots of alcohol without drinking water or eating an adequate amount of food.
“I think what happened is that after I blacked out, I kept on drinking. And then I got to the point where I was throwing up and I was dehydrated, but I couldn’t drink water,” Joel* says.
While Joel* doesn’t remember much from that night, he does remember the immense amount of pain he experienced from drinking too much. Extreme dizziness, stomach pain and a headache caused him to slip in and out of consciousness on his friend’s floor.
“I was really freaking out because it was my first time being so intoxicated,” Joel* says. “At the same time, I really felt like shit.”
The next thing he knew, his arms were around his friends’ shoulders, and they were walking back to his dorm in Shepard. Joel* decided that the pain was too unbearable and asked his dorm’s security officer to call an ambulance.
Joel* woke up in the hospital the next day with an IV in his arm and nausea medication on his side table. He left the hospital shortly and received an email from Residential Services about the incident that asked how he was doing and when they could meet to discuss his amnesty.
On a Zoom call, the residential director informed him that he was granted amnesty and would not receive disciplinary sanctions because he’d asked for the ambulance himself. Joel* was then asked about what happened that night and informed him that his parents would receive a letter about the incident.
“I remember being quite nervous,” Joel* says. “I was worried I would get in trouble, or my friends who I was with in the party would get in trouble, but ultimately nothing like that happened.”
challenging campus culture
challenging campus culture
challenging campus culture
For Weinberg fourth-year Max Honzel, cultivating safe party culture requires efforts beyond situational precautions. Honzel is the external director for Masculinity, Allyship, Reflection, Solidarity (MARS), Northwestern’s masculine-identifying peer education group that focuses on combating rape culture, promoting healthy sexuality and challenging perceptions of masculinity on campus.
Within MARS, members reflect on the impact of masculinity on their lives and relationships. On campus, they host workshops for fraternities and hope to expand to other groups like sports teams. MARS also helps facilitate discussion around the “Student Body” TND during Wildcat Welcome. In these conversations, Honzel emphasizes the importance of centering survivors of sexual violence.
“Being survivor-centered means centering anyone who might come to you or who’s faced any of these forms of violence — centering them in the conversation and making sure that whatever they want is respected and that their opinion is heard,” Honzel says.
In practice, Honzel says being survivor-centered includes maintaining an awareness of triggers in discussions of sexual assault. It also involves reflecting on how men can dominate these conversations in ways that inhibit other voices from being heard.
Weinberg third-year Savir Maskara, MARS’ workshop chair, says their programming with clubs aims to make members more willing to confront the issues their group faces instead of sweeping them under the rug. Maskara believes the leaders of these groups can be role models for their underclassmen.
“The goal is that if you saw your friend doing something shady, you’d have the comfort, the ability and the skills to go up to them and ask them about it and say, ‘Hey, I am not comfortable with what you did last night,’” Maskara says. “Starting those discussions, to me, is the most powerful thing because that is where true accountability will be held.”
When it comes to campus parties, Weinberg first-year Sarah Ordway uses Northwestern’s Safe Ride services, a University-affiliated ridesharing app that offers students free car transport from 7 p.m.-3 a.m. within a campus radius.
Ordway says her Safe Rides occasionally don’t come at the time indicated on the app. Other students have had their Safe Rides cancel at the last minute or never arrive. This poses a problem for students, especially if they are trying to quickly remove themselves from dangerous situations but do not have the resources to pay for ridesharing services.
Other than Safe Ride, Ordway says the University never educated her and other first-years about the existence of the Intercampus bus, the CTA 201 or how to take the ‘L’ train, which she thinks are all valuable resources. Greek event organizers and clubs like CSA and KASA sometimes charter buses or set meeting times at train stations for off-campus events. When there is no organized transportation, students must find their own way to get there.
Transport options like ridesharing offer the safety of privacy that the train doesn’t, but students must wager the ride’s expensive price with the cost of their safety. Burns and Hesekiel will only use ridesharing apps when it’s too cold to walk to a station or if the trains are taking too long. Otherwise, they take the Red Line, which Burns says is a place where she and her friends notoriously feel unsafe. She recalls instances of unsolicited staring and advances.
Burns and Hesekiel usually opt to coordinate their public transport plans with male friends to feel more comfortable on the way to downtown Chicago.
”For them, it’s less concerning, but for us, we’re like, ‘It would be nice to have some guys on the train in case the worst happens,’” Hesekiel says. “It’s just a comfort thing.”
Burns and a group of her female friends went to a bar in downtown Chicago during her first year at Northwestern. Upon entry, the bouncer escorted them through a side staircase and into a separate room without explanation. The private area had seats filled with young women along one wall, while another side had five booths that sat middle-aged men with more women. Bodyguards stood around doors to private rooms blocked with velvet ropes. No one in the room was talking.
“There just seemed to be some shady characters and weird energy in that room,” Burns says. “So that was pretty scary.”
Burns and her friends stayed in the room for about eight minutes before she motioned for them to go to the bathroom, inconspicuously leaving the bar and then taking the next train back to campus. After that experience, she stopped going out for a month and has not returned to that bar since.
She thinks that women need to take initiative to be safe when going out, because she finds that the culture of partying is difficult to change.
“It would be hard to implement things there that would make people feel more safe or make the environment more safe, just because there’s not very much regulation on who can come in [and] what they’re bringing with them,” Burns says.
For Burns, gender inequality is inherent in the very act of going out. She finds that it naturally makes these spaces more dangerous for women and that people should prepare by taking precautions like bringing pepper spray or staying with a group of friends.
“Women being hypersexualized in general [makes me more unsafe],” Burns says. “That’s probably the primary reason. I just feel more vulnerable going out.”
“It’s really important to speak up about what you’re comfortable with, and that way, everybody is going to have a good time.”- Barb Burns, Weinberg second-year
Every time Ordway and her friends go to a party, they map out their night. Before the event, they exchange locations on their phones, create backup plans for transportation mishaps and establish boundaries for leaving with different people. Throughout the night, they check on each other and then debrief the next morning to ensure that everyone was comfortable with what transpired the night before.
“[We’re] just making sure we know where they are, that they’re conducting themselves responsibly,” Ordway says.”I know my friends, and I know [when] something’s uncharacteristic of them.”
Burns and her friends also communicate about leaving plans throughout the night.
“We make sure that if somebody is going to deviate from that plan, that it’s communicated, and we don’t leave unless everyone’s in their place,” Burns says. “I would say there are some boundaries that are set before, but [we’re also] going with the flow and just staying conscientious.”
Constant communication proved useful during the incident at the bar where Burns and her friends were escorted into a private area. After they left the venue, they texted the friends they planned on meeting on the dance floor and informed them of their new plans. They then regrouped with the others outside and returned to campus together.
Throughout her experiences, Burns has developed two ultimate principles for going out: trust and transparency. Trust involves going out with friends she can depend on and exercising caution while interacting with strangers. Transparency means communication and honesty with friends to establish boundaries.
“It’s really important to speak up about what you’re comfortable with, and that way, everybody is going to have a good time,” Burns says.
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.