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When Catherine Welch, a senior at Colby, returned from studying in Nepal, she felt more aware than ever that college life included two types of drinking: too much or not at all. “Having been abroad, I experienced a different culture — where it was natural to have a glass of wine or a beer with supper if you so chose,” she said. She recalled from childhood seeing adults drinking small amounts of alcohol on occasion and asked, “Isn’t there a third option here we’re forgetting?”

As the student government president at the liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, Welch parlayed her concern into action, and in November Colby began a new program allowing students 21 or older to enjoy beer and wine in the dining hall on selected Friday evenings.

While many colleges have on-campus pubs, Colby’s new program is an anomaly. Beyond giving students a model for responsible drinking, it offers them a chance to learn about varieties of beer and wine as well as food pairings. At the inaugural event, the owner of Maine-based Allagash brewery was on hand to answer questions about his Belgian-style beers and the college’s wine distributor explained distinctions among Australian wines being sampled. While one student asked about brewing techniques, others swirled the wine and checked for legs. “They’re really interested. They’re not just here for the drink,” said bartender and dining services employee Sheila Ratte.

For some international students, the program reflects attitudes they’re accustomed to at home. Adelin Cai ’05, who worked with Welch on the project, grew up in Singapore, where alcohol is somewhat less of a forbidden fruit, she says. As a child, her mother would drink a beer on a hot day — and let her take a sip. “Being exposed to that at such a young age, it wasn’t really mystifying,” she said. If a mystique still surrounds alcohol in the experience of some college students, this program helps ameliorate it.

Over the years Colby has worked hard to educate students about the risks of excessive alcohol use and to give a clear message that alcohol abuse won’t be tolerated. The College maintains strict alcohol policies, offers chem-free housing and ample financial support for alcohol-free programming, and enforces a heavy fine for open-container violations — a fine enacted by students. At the same time, administrators support this effort to teach responsible, moderate drinking among those 21-plus students who choose to partake. Cat Welch believes this is part of the education. “They’re not just preparing us within our major,” she said, “They’re preparing us for a successful life after Colby.”