Fresno State students and community members braved cold temperatures Saturday morning to raise awareness about drug abuse and addiction.
The Drug Awareness Walk, hosted by Associated Students Inc. (ASI), began at the Free Speech Area, where participants gathered to hear from guest speakers and visit resource booths before a one-mile walk around campus.
A map provided for the walk included statistics related to drug abuse, as well as opportunities for participants to share the names of friends or loved ones suffering from drug addiction.
The group of about 100 Fresno State students walked with the goal of preventing drug abuse just weeks after one of their own, sophomore Omar Nemeth, died from an apparent drug overdose.
ASI President Blake Zante said the event was a way to respond to Nemeth’s death and to focus on drug-abuse prevention – which became a topic much-talked-about after his death.
“I felt like there was a need to bring awareness to it in a public way so that there weren’t underground conversations about it,” Zante said. “That way it wasn’t this kind of taboo subject. I really wanted to show that it’s an entire campus problem.”
Zante said Saturday’s walk can be the first step to bring the campus community together and build constructive conversations about students facing drug addiction and what resources are needed to help them.
And part of having an open conversation about drug abuse began, for some, with a few questions. At a booth for the Student Health and Counseling Center, a black box read: “How do Fresno State students party? The good, the bad and the ugly.” It asked students to share their experiences with drugs and alcohol on campus.
Cassie Valencia, student coordinator for the center, said the anonymous survey provides valuable information that will help shape future resources and workshops provided by the university.
“We’re asking them what they see or what they’ve heard about how Fresno State students party to see which direction we need to go,” Valencia said. “Do we need to offer more workshops and programs pertaining to alcohol, tobacco and drugs? Do we need to focus on prescription drugs or marijuana and the policies and laws with that?”
The center plans to add more programs and workshops for students in the future, Valencia said. The input gathered at the event will dictate the future programs and workshops.
The walk featured guest speakers, including Jamaal Bethea, a friend of Nemeth; Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro; and Assemblyman Jim Patterson.
Bethea, outspoken in the push for drug awareness on campus, shared Nemeth’s hopes of curing addiction before he died.
“If anyone knew him, the first thing that they would tell you is that it was his dream to cure addiction,” Bethea said.
Castro, who attended the walk with his wife, Mary, and son Jess, reflected on the loss of Nemeth and thanked students for leading the efforts to raise awareness.
“I think about all of our young people in our community, including our 25,000 students,” Castro said. “Every time there is an incident when there is a student who is in despair or is harmed by drug or alcohol abuse, that is a painful thing for me and for all of us here at Fresno State.”
Although the Drug Awareness Walk focused on campuswide solutions, Nemeth’s death localizes a nationwide problem with prescription drug addiction and chronic pain management.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid or prescription drug overdose, claiming the lives of over a half a million people between 2000 and 2015.
Patterson spoke about the role of individuals and their responsibility to respond when drug addiction affects their community.
“Prescription drug abuse is ubiquitous. It is everywhere. It is in our families, and, unfortunately, it touched our university family,” said Patterson, an alumnus of Fresno State.
Patterson has hosted forums in the past with doctors trained to treat drug addiction and hopes to provide similar resources to Fresno State students in the future.
“To see such a good turnout here is an encouragement,” Patterson said.
Nemeth’s death has also raised concerns about Greek life student activities on campus. Although he was not a member of a fraternity, Nemeth died after spending the night at the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity house.
Various fraternities and sororities were represented during the Drug Awareness Walk.
Eddy Delgado, a member of the Zeta Kappa chapter of the Sigma Nu fraternity said he and other fraternity and sorority members felt compelled to participate to try to change misconceptions about Greek life.
“I felt like as a Greek student here at Fresno State, we had to come and show our support,” Delgado said. “You hear the word fraternity, and you assume raging party, but that’s not really what it is.”
Delgado said his fraternity house keeps him involved in school activities, offers study groups and participates in numerous charity and philanthropy events.
“It’s a great way to just be a part of your school. It’s not just parties,” Delgado said. “So I feel like the more we get involved and the more we show the right perception, more people will come together and help.”
Zante said ASI’s next step is to collaborate with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Committee on campus.
“They do a lot of great work,” Zante said. “Now that we have shown a lot of campus support, this is something that I think our campus should really look into and see how we can make a concerted effort as an entire campus to address this problem that a lot of students might be struggling with.”
A Watchdog Safety Summit, being hosted by the Student Health and Counseling Center on Feb. 24, seeks to gather interested students who want to learn how to respond in emergency situations. The two-day summit will present information about drug abuse, alcohol overdose, sexual assault, bystander intervention and general campus safety.
Students can receive a CPR certification on the second day and are given the title of “campus watchdog” upon completion of the training.
Registration ends on Feb. 9 and is $25 for students. For more information, visit the Student Health and Counseling Center’s website.
“We want to make sure that we are addressing these issues so that another unfortunate tragedy doesn’t happen again,” Zante said.