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I Had The Best Time at Uni, And I Did The Whole Thing Sober

If you were to ask someone what a stereotypical freshers’ week looks like – they’ll almost definitely talk about drinking and clubbing as the main event.

But what if you’re going to uni as a non-drinker? It’s easy to assume that sobriety will make it a lot harder to make friends, find common ground – or to even enjoy uni at all. So we spoke to Stephen Harper, who is currently doing his Master’s at the University of York, to find out what it was like for him going through freshers’, and uni, completely sober. Turns out, it’s a lot better than might you think.


Stephen: There are plenty of reasons not to drink; I personally have been on medication since I was 18 that means booze is an absolute no. I’m about to start my fifth and final year of uni and I have had such a good time that I wish I could do it all again (let’s face it, that’s why most people do a postgrad degree – they’re not ready to leave uni yet). But when I think about myself at 18, scared about going to uni just like everybody else was, I wish I could have at least known not to worry about the difference drinking (or not drinking) would make to my experience.

Freshers’ was the week I was most scared of. It’s played up as this drink and drug fuelled week of havoc, and for those who wanted to do that, they had an amazing time. But I didn’t. And I was convinced that once my flatmates found out I didn’t drink I’d be shunned during pre-drinks, left behind while they went out and that none of them would even entertain the idea of joining me at an alternative freshers’ event.

I quickly realised my worries were completely needless.

I went to pubs with my flatmates and one night we went to a comedy show, which inspired me to later join my uni’s Comedy Society. I also went out a few times, and although I didn’t enjoy it that much it wasn’t because (as I naively thought at the time) that, as a sober person, staying out past 11pm and dancing wasn’t for me. I just hadn’t found my scene in freshers’ and a large part of me not enjoying it was actually just caused by the amount of time I had spent in the run-up convinced it would be awful.

“I found my people… I didn’t need alcohol to have a laugh.”

Half way through my first year, I found the fun in going out. I just needed somewhere that played S Club 7 and Smash Mouth and once I’d found that place, no one could stop me going clubbing all the time. I remember one night being in the seating area of my favourite club talking to someone, but then I heard floating from the dancefloor: “Somebody once told me…” I jumped out of my seat, leapt down the stairs and into the arms of my best mate who’d been looking for me from the moment the song started. Maybe you don’t like Smash Mouth as much as me, but I’m sure you have, or will find, an equivalent song or band that would make you want to dance with your friends like that – drunk or not.



I found my people. People who just wanted to dance to cheesy music, have fun, then get cheesy chips and gravy and sleepily walk home at 5am. I didn’t need alcohol to have a laugh, and most bars do some interesting soft drink or other, with cocktail bars allowing for mocktails or milkshakes. Yes, some people can be annoying to be with when they’re drunk and you’re sober, but I’ve found alcohol just accentuates qualities in people – as long as I’m with a sound group of people, they’ll stay sound no matter what. I also discovered massive benefits to going out sober: the main one being, I was never hungover. I felt a lot more refreshed than the people I went out with the next morning, made it to more lectures and felt way more excited about doing it all again the next night.

University turned out to be full of people and societies that don’t rely on alcohol to be fun, I just had to find my own niche.



I joined my course’s society, the Labour Club, the Drama Society, The Pool & Snooker Club and the Comedy Society. The great thing about all of them was that they neither required, nor excluded, drinking. So, I could enjoy all these societies with my friends who wanted to enjoy a drink as much as I could with my friends who just wanted an apple. What was my biggest worry before uni – that not drinking would exclude me from the social side of uni – was reduced to nothing. It wasn’t even a worry in the back of my mind, it just really didn’t occur to me any more. I even joined the uni Bar Billiards team, which competed solely in pubs; most members of the team were part of the Real Ale Society and two worked in a brewery – the fact that I was having a lime and soda meant nothing to them as long as I played well and we all had fun.

“University is such a melting pot of ideas and activities, being a non-drinker is really not the be all and end all.”

To my surprise, I also found a lot of other people who were sober at uni – I was even put in a flat in halls with someone who didn’t drink. Later on, I met people through friends who would introduce us: “Stephen, meet this person, he doesn’t drink either so you’ll get on”. We did get on, but it would be for reasons like talking about football, not our shared abstention from consuming alcohol. For the people who are sober but not into clubbing like me, there are so many things to do at uni – my housemate in halls got really into martial arts, you can go see a film, go for a meal, and of course join societies or go to alternative events. University is such a melting pot of ideas and activities, being a non-drinker is really not the be all and end all.

I still had to deal with some annoying assumptions from people as to why I wasn’t drinking. People assumed I was super religious in one sect or another (which if you are, more power to you – but if not, be prepared), or others thought I was on drugs and that was why I drank water all the time. The worst assumption is when people think I’m prudish, or less ‘fun’, just because I’m not drinking, but these people are thankfully few and far between.

“People, including myself at one point, consistently thought it was a bigger deal than it ever was.”

Now I’ve been through it, I’ve realised not drinking at university was largely a non-issue. I think I was asked “so, what is it like not drinking?” more than I thought to myself “oh crap, what do I do in this situation? I don’t drink!”.

photo provided

People, including myself at one point, consistently thought it was a bigger deal than it ever was. I still made friends, was able to date, go out, stay in and do any of that standard uni stuff without ever getting drunk. To top it off, the year I graduated from my Bachelor’s, I bagged the sign off of a recently closed nightclub (with the help of the owner!) that I went to far too much.

You really don’t need alcohol to have a good time, and being a non-drinker won’t put people off being your friend.

The people who’d be disappointed by the fact you don’t drink are probably really boring and not the people you want to hang out with anyway. Everyone is nervous about making friends at uni, sober or not, so just push yourself and you’ll be fine.


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