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  October 2, 2000

UConn's 'Dr. J' Helps Students Face Up to Life-and-Death Issues

To students, she's affectionately known as "Dr. J."

The unofficial, endearing title belongs to Janice Wilbur, coordinator of UConn's Substance Abuse Prevention Program, also known as the HEART program. But it perhaps has more to do with her teaching role in the First Year Experience Program, a role that was formally recognized in the spring when she was named recipient of the University's First Year Student Advocate Award by the Office of Undergraduate Education and Instruction.

The successful First Year Experience Program, now in its fourth year, brings UConn freshmen together weekly in an informal setting to interact and adjust to their new surroundings, experiences and expectations at the University. And for the past three years Wilbur, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Kent State, has been part of the "First Year" team of faculty, professional staff and administrators in extending a big helping and welcoming hand to students on campus.

Wilbur's counseling and leadership position with HEART, the alcohol and drug prevention program on the Storrs campus, serves as a sober guiding light for the more than 1,200 students enrolled in the First Year classes.

The one-credit seminar encompasses a myriad of transition topics - from homesickness to learning about University resources and from time management to study skills. Wilbur's lectures literally touch on life-and-death issues: drugs and alcohol.

"What I find is that students who drink a great deal don't know much about alcohol and sometimes participate in high-risk things like playing drinking games," said Wilbur.

She said the amount of drinking by students at UConn is no different from the scene at other colleges and universities across the country. Although most students are not alcoholics, Wilbur said, many of their problems are connected in some way to drinking.

"A large percentage of students were drinking before they came to college," she said. "So they're not being introduced to drinking at UConn. It's just that they have more freedom now."

It's not a stretch to say that at this particular time in their lives, Wilbur may know what the students are up to more than their parents.

But she shares with the parents a common concern that the students' University days are a healthy balance between academics and social life.

"I don't want any of you to flunk out because you partied too much," she told a recent class, as she shut off the lights in the classroom, leaving some 100 students in the "First Year Experience" program in the dark.

"That's how your body shut downs if you don't think about what you're doing and drink too much alcohol," she said. "That's what alcohol poisoning will do to your body."

During the 50-minute joint session with students from several First Year Experience sections, Wilbur elicited comments from the class on the consequences of drinking too much and conducted a role-playing experiment with student volunteers acting out various states of mind, from blacking out to being unconscious from alcohol poisoning. She also invited students to respond anonymously to a survey on their perceptions of drinking and sexual activity on the Storrs campus the previous Sunday evening as well as their own actions during the same time period.

The informal survey tabulated at the end of the class suggested that students' perceptions of drinking and sexual activity on campus were higher than their own reported behavior.

"That's a normal assessment in every class I go into," said Wilbur. "Reported behavior is always lower than the perception."

She told the students they could draw at least one conclusion from the brief class survey: "You don't have to drink to fit in."

Wilbur drew laughter from the class when she asked students, "When you were in high school and living at home, how many of you had little refrigerators in your bedrooms to keep beer cold?

"There are no parents here and for most of you this is the first time you're living away from home," she said. "Don't have so much fun that you forget your academics, which is the real reason you're in college. You need to balance your campus life and if you don't, your GPA will suffer the consequences."

In an interview after the class, Wilbur said she loves teaching and loves college students.

"It's exciting to be a part of their lives, to help them make the transition from living at home during their high school years to being here at the University. I do whatever I can to help them make a successful transition."

She said the class she teaches is always interactive. "I put a great deal of energy into knowing all of the students names and also getting to know them as individuals."

Wilbur came to the Storrs campus and to her present post in 1991 along with her husband Michael, a professor of educational psychology.

Before coming to UConn, the two held teaching positions at the University of Northern Iowa, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Syracuse University, the University of Tulsa, Temple University and Washington State. Also, for a four-year period in the 1980s, the two taught in Boston University's overseas program in Germany, Spain, Belgium and England.

A native of St. Johns, Mich., Wilbur graduated from Michigan State in 1966 and from Central Michigan in 1974 with a master's degree in clinical psychology.

David Ouimette, director of the First Year Experience programs, praised Wilbur for her support and teaching acumen. "She's very giving of her time," he said.

The topics Wilbur addresses are critical for students, he added: "She talks to students about drugs and alcohol. She talks about choices."

In the event students weren't tuned in to her classroom talk on that particular Monday afternoon, Wilbur presented each with a gift as they headed out of the class: a red, heart-shaped stress reliever ball. The HEART program phone number is printed on the ball - just in case.

Claudia G. Chamberlain