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Willie Bannister: Helping students reduce risk of alcohol and substance abuse

By Nenad Tadic | Emory Report | May 24, 2013

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Willie Bannister serves as an alcohol and other substance abuse prevention counselor in Campus Life's Office of Health Promotion. Emory Photo/Video.

If you take a look at Willie Bannister's career roles, you may recognize someone who has worn multiple hats.

He continues to do so in his current role as alcohol and other substance abuse prevention counselor in Campus Life's Office of Health Promotion, where he's served since 2006.  

Amidst a schedule that involves counseling students who have been sent to him via misconduct violations or giving presentations to academic groups, Bannister also studies trends among college students, and the best ways in which they can be safe if they choose to drink.  

In an interview with Emory Report, Bannister explains how he and his colleagues in the Office of Health Promotion are addressing ways to respond to issues on campus as they relate to the intersection of sexual assault and alcohol and drug abuse.  

What is your background?  

I have a degree in hotel administration [from Cornell University]. I initially thought I wanted to work with people in that respect. But a few years later, I found it to be pretty unfulfilling work. I could have been successful in it I think, but at a cost to my quality of life that was hard to justify. I did work in the food industry from 1984-1986. Mostly in food and beverage management, catering, and a little cooking thrown in. I love to cook! Good barbecue makes me happy. I was able to broaden my scope of work due to several lucky breaks and unusual circumstances.  

What were some of those unusual circumstances?  

I landed a job in a wilderness therapy program, modeled after Outward Bound. This consisted of working with kids labeled as “delinquents” from Newark and other needy communities in [New Jersey]. A typical expedition would begin by loading up a van of eight to10 sort of angry young men and driving from our offices on the Jersey Shore loaded with gear and a canoe trailer, and staying in the field for 30 to 45 days. We'd divide those days over canoeing, hiking, backpacking, and service projects. We hiked the Long Trail in Vermont on one trip, and canoed the Everglades on another.  Broke up a lot of fights, tracked down a few runaways.  It was an effective vehicle for breaking through to these young, guarded kids whose outdoors experience was limited — they had to plan, make decisions, and be accountable to the consequences of those choices.  

You have a knack for helping people who are troubled or less fortunate. How did this lead to your first role when you arrived in Atlanta?  

I was hired — over the phone, sight unseen — by a program called Project Adventure, an adolescent treatment program. The gig gave me the opportunity to move to Georgia. I spent my first 10 years living and working in Covington, near the Oxford College campus. I moved to a community mental health center in South Fulton County in 1999, not long after getting my master's degree. There I worked in substance abuse treatment, family counseling and couples counseling. I developed the outpatient adult AOD [alcohol and other drugs] treatment program that I managed for three years, until I came to Emory.  

What's a typical day like for you at Emory?  

I often give talks to student and academic groups ranging from Orientation to Greek Life. In an hour, I'm headed to Cox Hall to give a talk to Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA) pre-departure students about ways to think about alcohol use while studying in another country.  

I have personal, confidential consultations with students. I give feedback on present drinking patterns, and offer strategies on how to lower their alcohol related risks. I help out students who may have concerns about their friends. I've gotten students who have concerns about some of their friends back home, in which case I seek resources to give to them in that area.

What will you be working on this summer?

The volume of individual contacts decreases sharply over the summer months, and much of my energy gets redirected toward preparing for the fall semester.   

This is the time when the entire Office of Health Promotion begins to strategize for [our] contributions to new student orientation and to develop curriculum for the Pre-major Advising Connections at Emory (PACE) unit we teach for the incoming class.  

I am presently looking at how other student health centers incorporate patient screening, where every student can be screened for their level of alcohol related risk. I'll be working with Jessica Hill, the department's new health promotion specialist, supporting her work in developing the primary prevention arm of our work. Jessica is working with Campus Life colleagues on policies and other environmental strategies related to alcohol use on campus. We'll be developing health promotion strategies to support the social and developmental needs of all members the Emory community, which includes individuals who choose to use alcohol and individuals who choose not to use alcohol. I also work with the Respect Program in its work to address the intersections of high-risk alcohol use sexual assault and intimate partner violence that impact the campus community.  

Summer is also the perfect opportunity to work on my professional development requirements; Campus Life has remained consistent in their support of my continuing licensure.    

How can students or other members of the Emory community find out more?

We have a number of resources at Emory, including the Student Health Center, Office of Health Promotion, Counseling and Psychological Services, and Psychiatric Services. These are resources Emory students do and should take advantage of before they reach a point of crisis in their lives.

[I deal] with undergrad and graduate students. You can contact [me] for free substance abuse screenings and consultations, concerns about a friend, referrals and treatment options, as well as opportunities for Emory students in recovery at wbannis@emory.edu.