Sipping your way through study away: Students navigate new drinking cultures

Drinking culture at study abroad sites can be very different from the U.S. Students abroad share how they’ve adapted to the drinking norms in their cities.


Susan Behrends Valenzuela

(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Madeline Carpinelli, Staff Writer

There’s nothing like buying your first legal drink, let alone buying it while abroad. Whether you’re studying abroad in Buenos Aires or Florence, drinking can be an intriguing and exciting prospect for many American students, especially those who are still underage in the U.S. As students navigate drinking culture for the first time, their selected study abroad site can greatly influence how their drinking habits develop.

For Steinhardt sophomore Emma Valerio, who is studying at NYU Madrid and would be considered underage in the U.S., drinking culture in Spain seems more casual, as it is common, for example, to have a glass of sangria with dinner.

“I feel like there’s not as much pressure to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to find somewhere that’s going to let us in. Oh my gosh, we have to buy as much as we can,’” Valerio said. “If you go out to the pub, sure, you’re drinking, but it doesn’t seem as desperate.”

In comparison to abroad sites with more lax alcohol laws, many students describe the drinking culture at NYU’s New York City campus as much less casual, especially for underage drinkers. Valerio said she feels that in the United States, alcohol is a “forbidden fruit,” and finds that young people are more obsessed with it because they can’t have it. This often means that the students drink primarily to get drunk, and spend a lot of time worrying about what clubs or bars will let them in.

“I don’t think it’s the healthiest thing ever, because obviously you have people blacking out every single weekend,” Valerio said.

Instead, the accessibility of alcohol in many countries abroad has led many to drink in moderation. Some even drink less or less often while abroad.

“It’s weird because you would think that a lot of American students would have the urge to buy a bunch of alcohol and have a bunch of alcohol in our dorms because it’s allowed, unlike the NYU dorms,” said CAS Junior Madelyn O’Meara, 21, who is currently studying at NYU Paris. “But I haven’t really had the urge. Pregaming isn’t as much of a thing here.”

(Alcohol is allowed at NYU dorms in New York for those over 21 as long as it isn’t kept in a room shared with students who are underage.)

In Madrid and London as well, students observed that the classic American college experience of pregaming and playing drinking games is not as present at abroad sites. Some students don’t seem disappointed by this, and Valerio believes that it is because it is just not the norm in their new city.

“It’s kind of frowned upon to get messy drunk, and especially to do so often,” Valerio said. “I think in a way, in an effort to assimilate to the culture here, people are kind of taking on the habits of the locals.”

Still, there’s no denying the impact that a cheap drink can have on a college student. In Spain and France, where alcohol prices are especially low, the cost of alcohol plays a big part in what kind of drinking habits students adopt while abroad.

“Everything here is so much cheaper.” Valerio said. “When I go out to eat in New York, I usually just order water because I’m not going to pay 12 to 15 dollars, if not more, for a drink. But here, you’re having dinner, and a glass of wine is like three Euros. Cocktails are like six Euros max.”

After experiencing more casual drinking cultures, many students, both of age and younger, will be returning home with different drinking habits than their peers who stayed in New York City.

“I think it’s allowed me to have it more casually instead of having it specifically on Friday and Saturday nights,” O’Meara said. “It’s a good way for college kids to be open to ways to treat alcohol that’s not just for binge drinking.” 

For Stern junior Dylan Ferdico, 21, studying at NYU London has affected his drinking habits as well — specifically in regards to the quality of the drinks and the brands he tends to purchase.

“I definitely have a feeling that when I get back to the U.S., I’m probably not going to be drinking the lower-quality drinks as much, just because by the time I get back, I don’t think I’ll be accustomed to it,” Ferdico said. “I wouldn’t have a problem spending a little bit more on higher quality beers for example, if that means it’s better tasting.”

For those whose pregaming traditions and beer pong skills haven’t wavered while abroad, many have at the very least gotten to drink something that tastes better than the cheapest beer on the shelf.

Contact Madeline Carpinelli at [email protected].