Influential speaker/magician aims to change drinking policy

By Katie Landeck

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Evan Sahagian/Collegian

Tom Schiff, the Community Health & Patient Educator for University Health Services asked about 120 University of Massachusetts students if they’d ever seen a drunk person “puking.”

Almost all stood.

The attendees remained standing as Schiff asked if they had ever witnessed someone drunk dialing, being creepy to a woman at a party, running outside wearing very little clothing and more.

He then asked them to talk about it.

Talking about changing the culture around drinking was the focus of the “It’s Your Call: A Conference for Student Leaders on Changing the Culture of Underage and Drinking on Campuses” event, according to Student Government Association Akshay Kapoor.

“We are trying to discuss issues that often are not even addressed,” Kapoor said.

The three-hour long conference, sponsored by Northwestern’s district attorney’s offices, talked about the roles bystanders play in drinking, the potential consequences of drinking and how the “Zoomass” label has affected the University.

Headlining the event was Rob Hackenson, a magician, hypnotist and influential speaker.

Hackenson – who has made appearances on FOX News — spoke about the potential consequences of drinking, using magic tricks, videos and audience participation to keep the talk interesting.

He showed several clips of people drinking in cinema, including the scene from “Animal House” where one of the frat boys downs an entire bottle of Jack Daniels in a single swig.

“He wasn’t drinking iced tea,” Hackenson said. He said the film’s actor, John Melushi, was not drinking real alcohol.

“What I love is this video doesn’t show him on the floor, puking, in the hospital or dead, because those are pretty much his four options,” he said.

He also showed a video found on MySpace of a boy also down the hard whiskey.

He then talked about the influence of social media, and how a video of a student drinking could affect them if their parents, friends or potential employers see it.

“It reinforces how important media is,” said student Janira Rivera, represented her sorority at the presentation.

Later in his speech, Hackenson talked about some of his personal stories involving drinking, as well as some stories other people had shared with him.

One night in college, he had gone with a friend to a graffiti party two miles away from his house with his friend. During the party, his friend – who had been the designated driver – started drinking. His friend downed five shots of Wild Turkey just before getting behind the wheel, Hackenson said.

While he was “fine” when he started driving the car, he blacked out when he was about a 50 feet away from his destination, hitting another car when he ignored a red light.

Everyone made it out OK.

“If we had left one second earlier, I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

Another time, everyone didn’t make it out OK.

One night, a boy had been drinking at a party, but had found a sober driver to take him home, Hackenson said.

The driver who crashed into him, though, wasn’t sober.

During the crash, a piece of guardrail came through the bottom of the car and pinned the boy to his seat, trapping him as he burned to death.

It was his father – a police officer – who identified him.

“His pain and suffering came from someone else’s wrong decision,” Hackenson said.

“The drinking and driving thing really scared me,” said senior Kathleen Armstrong, who also came to represent her sorority.

After Hackenson, UMass Police Lieutenant Thomas O’Donnell gave a brief speech about how the drinking at the University affects the surrounding area.

“We are never going to eradicate underage drinking in Amherst, but I want to make you think,” he said.
He also said that the changes have to come from the students on campus, not the administration.

This was a point that resonated with Amherst Select Board Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe, who attended the conference as an audience member.

“Students have to be the one to say ‘this is not okay.’ Leave the party. Take someone with you. Remember that you are in a residential area,” she said.

She said not every student makes poor decisions on a weekend night, but the current perception of the University doesn’t reflect this.

Kapoor hopes events like this will prompt change in the perception of the campus.

“You can’t say one event will change it but it will start a movement, a cultural shift,” said Kapoor.

There is talk about making the conference an annual event, according to Kapoor.

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]