Story by Erik Potter

Joan Masters smiles at the camera outside the MU Student Center
Joan Masters is the senior coordinator with Partners in Prevention, which is a substance abuse consortium dedicated to creating healthy and safe college campuses. Photo by Sam O’Keefe

Technically speaking, Joan Masters has had the same job for 17 years, though it would be difficult to recognize it today from where she started out.

Masters has led MU’s Partners in Prevention program almost since its founding. The program, housed at Mizzou, is a consortium of 21 colleges and universities across the state that are trying to reduce substance abuse and other risky behaviors among their students.

The program started in 2000 as a grant-supported group of 12 public universities.

Under her leadership, the consortium has grown by more than 80 percent. Masters has also overseen an expansion of what the program offers to its member schools, including annual data collection to help them understand the size and scope of their student wellness challenges and an annual conference where they can network and share the latest research on effective prevention techniques.

Masters and her staff have monthly in-person meetings with consortium members to offer training and technical assistance on the schools’ campus prevention programs. The program, which is still 100 percent grant-funded, shares resources, including funding, to support those efforts.

The program is a great example, Masters says, of MU being the “University for Missouri” that Chancellor Alexander Cartwright has championed.

“I’d like to think we can attribute at least some of the academic success at campuses across the state to the fact that, 20 years ago, we made a commitment to helping our campuses … meet challenges like substance abuse and alcohol, transportation issues, drug use, mental health and suicide, and prescription drug use,” Masters says.

Pivot points

As Partners in Prevention has grown, so have Masters’ responsibilities, which has helped keep the job fresh.

She finds reward in not only helping her partner schools but also in training the undergraduate student workers and graduate assistants she hires. Many of them, after they leave, go on to careers in college wellness despite not having had a long-term interest in the field when they started in her office.

Masters herself didn’t intend on a career in college wellness when she came to Mizzou as a freshman in 1995. She earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, but it was her three years as a peer educator in the ADAPT (Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team) program, part of the Wellness Resource Center, that inspired her career dreams.

She earned a master’s degree in education and counseling psychology from Mizzou. As a graduate assistant, she shadowed the first Partners in Prevention coordinator during the inaugural year of the program. He left Mizzou as Masters was graduating. She applied for the position and has coordinated the program ever since.

Social norms

One of the evidence-based practices Partners in Prevention promotes on campuses across the state is “social norming.”

The idea is that people behave in ways they think are consistent with how others behave. If college students think everyone on campus binge drinks, they will be more likely to binge drink themselves. Rather than scare students with messages about the dangers of alcohol, which evidence says is not effective at changing behavior, social norm interventions merely promote truthful messages about how students are actually acting.

Seventeen years ago, the statewide rate for binge drinking — defined as having five or more drinks in less than two hours at least three times in a week — stood at 40 percent for college students. Today, it has fallen to 25 percent.

Mizzou staff members who work with students have a great opportunity to help amplify those positive message, Masters says. “The more they hear about being safe and moderate with drinking from people other than in the prevention office the better.”

She offers these tips for employees who interact with students:

  • In your own conversations, don’t glorify the party culture.
  • Know the norms: When students go out, most have between zero and four drinks, and most don’t go out during the academic week.
  • If you see a student struggling — missing classes, drinking during the week — ask the student about it. Say “I’ve noticed you talk about drinking during the week; is that pairing well with your classes? Are you able to study?” If the student is able to admit that it’s a problem, refer them to the Wellness Center. More resources are available at wellbeing.missouri.edu.

Masters sees college wellness efforts as a safeguard for all the other work across campus to promote student success.

“Residential life, academic support — all of that work is compromised when a student or group of students decide to not be healthy, safe or smart,” she says. “It’s all interwoven.”