Be Ready, Be Strong, Be Your Best
by Delwyn Hewitt, Project Officer, Deakin University
My name is Delwyn Hewitt; I’m the Project Officer for Deakin University’s VicHealth Alcohol Culture Change Project. My background includes managing a range of projects in partnership with local governments and schools, a Masters Degree in health promotion from Deakin Uni and competition in athletics at a high level. This project resonated with me because promoting health and wellbeing is something I’m personally committed to.
At Deakin we believe universities have a leadership role in creating healthy work and study environments, so this project was a natural fit for us.
I’ve loved working on this project, it’s been absolutely fantastic and I’ve given everything to it. It’s been very rewarding to create partnerships within the university and work side by side with students.
I joined the project in December 2017. The project had been set up to identify social worlds (groups of people who get together for a common interest or activity) at risk of alcohol-related harm within the university and improve their drinking cultures.
So, we conducted a major needs-assessment to identify these groups. It was an extensive process. We analysed the literature, talked to students, academics and staff and surveyed students across the university.
We identified three groups at risk of alcohol-related harm; students in the Uni Nationals sporting competition, residential students living on campus and Deakin Uni Student Association members (DUSA). Uni Nationals students often saw their competition as a bit of a party and an opportunity to drink, rather than focusing on sport. And the DUSA and residential students, some (but not all) drank alcohol and attended traditional pub nights.
With residential students no longer living at home, which we know is a more protective environment, when they move out and start uni, that factor isn’t there anymore. Their drinking is usually influenced by peer-pressure, social norms, attitudes and practices.
We decided to use four different strategies with these three groups across the four campuses including the Uni Nationals competition on the Gold Coast.
Our strategies included leadership training, a targeted messages campaign, alcohol-free events and the appointment of a Chef de Mission.
Our project wasn’t based around telling students not to drink; because we knew that wouldn’t work. The message we gave students was about low risk drinking and understanding what standard drinks are. And thinking about how they might be pressuring others to drink, or respond to pressure from others.
“We’ve re-learnt something we knew before we started and that it takes time to shift culture.”
Our first strategy, leadership training, was important because peer-support and peer-education is an effective way to reach and engage with those you’re trying to interact with. We upskilled and empowered students to change attitudes and assisted them to support their peers to make better decisions in risky drinking behavior.
Our next strategy, targeted messages, were co-designed with students and some of this work was part of their university course. They aimed at positively influencing drinking culture and there were two campaigns. One group for the Uni Nationals; it included four images with a bottle around the message “Be Ready, Be Strong, Be Your Best”. And the other messages were for the residential and DUSA student groups.
We had 12 different designs including; “Don’t let the moment get wasted”, “You don’t need alcohol to socialise”, and “Alcohol doesn’t give you confidence, a healthy body does”.
The messages were shared with the students through shared communication channels like social media. We used app’s, Facebook, and placed posters across all four campuses.
Our next strategy involved organising 69 alcohol-free events at the University including the Uni Nationals. We also created non-alcoholic options at alcohol events like our Mocktails.
Mocktails are drinks that look like cocktails but don’t contain any alcohol. They were so successful that DUSA students started creating them at their club events – this was an unexpected outcome for us!
Our last strategy involved appointing a Chef de Mission for the Uni Nationals student group. It was important this person was a positive role model who could work with our student athletes; so, we enrolled a former Deakin alumna who’d also competed at an Olympic level.
Overall, I’d say our project was received quite well across the board and the four campuses. What we did complemented strategies that were already in place with our project partners – so it’s not like we were doing anything new and different.
We have observed some shifts in attitudes to drinking; for example, there was a reduction in those students that strongly agreed that “preloading” was the norm.
“Our findings have shown that if you can reach students with targeted strategies – you can create change”.
Even though our focus was in culture change and we weren’t expecting to see changes in drinking practices immediately, in the Uni Nationals group, we saw strong trends away from self-described binge-drinking and a reduction in lifetime and single occasion risks. And from our post-survey results across the university, our project strategies and Deakin’s alcohol policy did directly motivate some students to reduce or stop their drinking in 2018.
We do have to treat our results with caution because our findings are based on small samples of the total student population.
However, there’s been some positive changes at Deakin University. A Health Promotion Co-Ordinator has been appointed and we’ve established an advisory group which includes world leaders in the alcohol space.
We’ve also identified some key learnings. Aligning with best practice health promotion approaches, it’s important not to rely on any one strategy, especially when you’re trying to create culture change. Shifting alcohol cultures takes time and requires a multi-faceted, evidence-based approach tailored to the various student groups.
If we’d just used one strategy with each group, we would’ve had less impact, but implementing a range of strategies has been an effective approach.
I think tailoring the strategies to the groups is also important to impact culture change. Talking to the students about what they think might work and not just presuming that we know what will work with them – was a very important part of the project.
I’d say our biggest challenge was implementing a complex range of strategies across all four campuses in three different student groups in a very short time frame!
We’ve definitely seen some shifts and changes in drinking cultures across the university.