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Medical dilemmas and moral hangovers: »In the future, you will drink less alcohol at Danish intro camps, I'm sure of that«

For decades, the traditional Danish ‘rustur’ intro camp on the medicine programme has been shrouded in mystery and nervous excitement for thousands of new students. But the intro camp community is in transition throughout the country. The same goes for social etiquette and public debate. The University Post followed the intro camp tutors on the medicine programme to find out how an intro camp is organised, and how limits are defined on a study programme that, by definition, crosses people’s limits.

The first thing you meet in the student club at Panum is the head of a monkey with fuzzy hair and a stuffed squirrel with a fancy hat and a packet of cigarettes in its hands. Over the women’s toilet is a stolen road sign with the inscription ‘clitoris road’, and over the men’s toilet is one from the North Jutland village Blære (bladder).

There are rucksacks all over the place, and people are shuffling around dazed between bags and backpacks. The dark basement bar appears to be a mixture of a provincial disco with a sticky floor, and a station full of people returning from Roskilde Festival.

The 84 tutors from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences have just returned from a weekly seminar at Klinteborg in Fårevejle, where they have tested the planned intro week and given each other feedback. They ran down to the sea to cool off in the waves. They discussed drinking culture, norms, and inclusion and took a nap when needed. And then they partied. Because on this, particular, trip, there is no alcohol policy.

For four weeks over the course of the summer, the student club functions as both a sewing room and a party room, a do-it-yourself room and an office space. In the atrium, there are people with saws, nails and plaster cast to build and cast props for the planned presentations, which they call the games and the academic events on the trip. In the underground car park people are on all fours for days on end painting weekly plans, stage scenery and posters. These posters are called ‘kaduser’, and nobody knows why.

It is Sunday morning. Five days before 375 future medical doctors are to meet up at the Panum Building for the first time so they can be hustled into buses that drive to provincial Danish locations like Venø, Lolland, Holbæk, Sæby, Haderslev, Agerskov and Visby.

»I have not been to my parents’ birthdays or on a family holiday for the past five years, because I am always here preparing the intro camp,« says one tutor.

»I haven’t been to my little sister’s birthday for five years in a row. It is actually her birthday today,« says another.

»When my grandparents had their golden anniversary, I had to cancel,« says a third. »And I haven’t been to my younger brother’s birthday for six years.«

Party for perverts

If you search online in Danish for ‘rustur’ or intro camp you will get clean, prim, magazine articles with headlines like ‘what kind of intro camp-type are you?’ and ‘Eleven good tips for you before your intro camp’. But you also get murkier search results like ‘Sissel-Jo Gazan finally protested: But only after simulating an orgasm in front of her fellow students’

The first negative stories emerged in 2014 when two political science students spoke openly about initiation rituals, where men had to stand on boxes simulating intercourse. All in front of a stark naked tutor, while the rest of the organisers had masks on. A pigs head had to be caressed, and meat from the animal’s face had to be put down in your underwear to increase your libido.

This led to a heated debate over the faculties’ responsibility and their lack of intervention. About young people out of control who could not set their own boundaries on craziness, macho culture and the arrogance of power. Others said that they were just fun and games, and that the sordid accounts only made up a negligible part of the intro camp experience.

I had also heard rumours that they were shooting up pure alcohol into their veins to get drunk, and that it was generally a wild study environment.
Lise Hemmingsen, tutor at the Faculty of Health and Medicine

One year later, the Associate Dean at the Faculty of Law recommended that students stopped dressing up like Mexicans and Indians for intro parties, something that set off a whole new debate.

And in March 2021, the debate about the intro camps flared up again. Political science was the focal point this time. This time it was about the faculty intervening to abolish the so-called ‘country games’, where each team had to imitate a nation’s clothing, traditions and customs, by way of all sorts of caricatured characteristics.

The university is right now a battleground where old habits and traditions are being questioned. The same goes for the intro camp that is all about young people’s communities. And now, shortly before the intro camps take place, a report from the Danish Evaluation Institute shows that 24 per cent of incoming female students fear that the social activities at the start of their studies will cross their personal limits. For incoming male students, the number is 10 per cent.

How do we create a community of students that includes everyone in the midst of a culture war, where your opponents are either considered snowflakes or violating he-men? And what is it that has 84 medical students quitting family birthdays, golden anniversaries and holidays for years in a row?

Guts and flour

Lise Hemmingsen did not know much about the medical degree programme when she started almost seven years ago. No one in her family had a higher education degree, and among her circle of friends, she only heard rumours. It was through acquaintances that she understood that precisely the Faculty of Medicine and Health’s intro camp was supposed to be a full-on, total, event. That they administered saline drips on each other when they had a hangover, and that it was Denmark’s upcoming medical doctors that drank the most during their period of study, and that did the best parties.

»I had also heard rumours that they injected pure alcohol into their veins to get drunk, and that it was generally a wild study environment. But I may have always been a bit wild, so it did not deter me,« she says.

»As it turned out, of course, the stories were completely untrue. Even though I have seen people getting saline drips. But not at intro camp.«

She showed up for intro camp with a certain scepticism however. Since Lise Hemmingsen was five years old, she has been a part of the Danish scouts. She has been in charge of countless excursions and sat on the Board for the South Funen and Langeland scouts division when she was 15 years old. She knew, in other words, how to organize a trip.

»I probably thought a lot of myself. But when I went to intro camp, I was completely bowled over. It was not necessarily because the execution was better than what I had been used to, but that the underlying idea behind it was a lot more creative. A classical scouting might be to build a spaghetti tower out of marshmallows. When you’ve done ten of them, you are pretty much finished with that. On the medicine programme, we had thought about how to get everyone involved, how to keep everyone going, and how to get them to work together.«

She mentions, in particular, the academic presentations, which were not just slick power point decks about the study programme and the courses. Instead, there was a Cluedo-like murder mystery, and role-playing with patients where the students learn about failsafe signs of death, the causes of death, and treatment of diseases. There are also races, where the participants act as red blood cells and have to find the ‘kaduser’ with the different organs in the forest. Then return to the ‘heart’, from where they are ‘pumped’ to the next organ.

Dammit, man. I slept through three alarms. Will be there in a moment.

Text message from a delayed tutor to their group

Everything needs to be organised before the start of the trip. In the course of preparation week, a tutor from the purchasing group has called at least 15 meatpacking factories to procure intestines for all classes. They are to be used for teaching in the anatomy of organs. Another tutor has purchased 74 kilos of wheat flour and a huge number of nappies for the presentation ‘Flour baby’. In other presentations, the students are introduced to the use of the scalpel and the sewing thread on a rib roast or on a banana. On one of the days a young doctor comes out and answers questions about their job and her time during the study programme.

Since then, Lise Hemmingsen has been a tutor seven times in a row — a new record for a female tutor on the medicine programme.

»For the first couple of years, I was a bit hesitant and didn’t quite know who to talk to. Now everyone is on first names with me. I’ve never got used to this, I’ve always been the one that no one knew who was.«

Even though she started mid-winter a half year after her intro camp, she already had a community and some basic academic concepts when she started her student life. She knew students from the vast majority of the year cohorts, and when the study programme got difficult, she was supported by others who had been through the same the year before, she says.

»I really need something social to be able to keep up with the academic aspects. And I’m convinced that the intro camp guidance and the other social stiff have got me through the bachelor’s programme. The teaching on the master’s degree programme fits me perfectly, but on the bachelor’s degree programme I really had to fight my way through. As to how cells, molecules and potassium work, well I think it is all rubbish to be quite honest.«

Intro camp for both the living and the dead

Even though the tutors have had two days to recover after their week-long seminar, attrition has started to take an effect on Sunday morning. In the group with the theme Kuzco, named after Disney’s main character from The Emperor’s New Groove, two group members are missing. A third one is sleeping on the couch.

Anna Arendt Blak tries to shove the entire Kuzco herd into a morning meeting with porridge, fresh berries, chopped almonds and tar-black coffee. She is the chair of the intro counselling this year. She was last year also, and the year before, when intro camp was stopped due to the pandemic and the risk of infection.

»This food is almost worthy of an Insta post,« someone from the group says.

But only almost, because the bowls are plastic, and the coffee is served in a beer glass. While a young guy eats some porridge from something resembling a petri dish, they tell each other how much McDonald’s they bought when they got home. One of them says that he can’t eat fast food with a hangover, and another relates how he accidentally got an extra delivery for free. But when Anna Arendt Blak tracks the conversation back into the plan for the coming week, the conversation changes. Suddenly, it’s all about KSLs — shorthand for buying, procuring, making — figure of eight rotations, and finance committees.

If they die within the first three games, then they deserve to die.

Tutor’s exclamation in connection with a new presentation


Areas of responsibility and presentations are shared out. Who will be in charge of Harry Potter? Alice in Wonderland? Squid Game? Pirate? A text message ticks in from Stautz:

»Dammit, man. I slept through three alarms. Will be there in a moment.«

Each tutor is co-responsible for two or three presentations during intro camp with a different costume group. So after the morning meeting, Tore Skov Jørgensen sits down with the group that is to be dressed up as a ringmaster with a high hat and stick. Together, they are developing a new presentation based on the Netflix series Squid Game.

Everyone agrees that they should not start with this presentation. The tutors will be wearing masks and workman’s overalls, but the point is that the participants slowly »get killed, one by one.« It might seem a bit harsh for the new students. The theme needs to be polished a bit because the game, like in the Netflix series, is about getting the worst out of mankind. It’s a difficult balance. The coming students are allowed to be tortured a bit, and die, they all agree. But at the same time it has to be fun and inclusive for everyone.

»How do we involve the dead people here?« a young guy asks.

»If they die within the first three games they also deserve to die,« says another, and then laughs at the morbidity of his own logic.

Cancel culture and all that hype

There are a lot of these types of discussions among the tutors. The things that used to be fun, and taken for granted, are suddenly up for discussion and debate. Lise Hemmingsen remembers that on her first intro week there was a completely different atmosphere among the tutors, where it was all about drinking the most, the fastest.

»There used to be a wild drinking culture. You were boring if you did not drink. But this has gradually changed, and it is now perfectly acceptable not to drink. I have also seen old presentations from 1997, where it states that you have to find the freshman girl with the biggest boobs or set up some kind of glory hole. I just don’t know how this could have been OK in 1997,« she says.

Since then, internal staff representatives have been introduced among the tutors, and from this year there is even a staff rep on each class. There are also fixed days where there can be discussions over the faculty’s rules. Here the internal regulations are recounted, and drinking culture and gender norms are discussed, says Anna Arendt Blak, chair of the tutors.

But in the larger picture, faculty regulations are few and far between: Nudity and drugs are forbidden. Outside guests may not solely be responsible for the presentation, you may only drink alcohol from 17.00 at intro camp, and there must always be an alcohol-free alternative to be included on an equal footing with the alcohol.

»Our most important internal rules are that we may not hit on the new students or pressure others to drink. I’m sure that management agrees with us. But this is something that we’ve decided ourselves. I got a crush on my tutor myself when I was on intro camp. It is well known that tutors get what we call counsellor shine. You suddenly become very interesting when you do large, impressive presentations in the evening and the morning, and say how you can diagnose a blood clot in the brain. No matter what you say, there is this relationship of power.«

Is there any disagreement in the discussions?

»Yes, sure. We are 84 people from a range of different backgrounds and ages. When I was on intro camp, we had, for example, a gender swap presentation, where the boys dressed up as girls and vice versa. Some tutors found this to be the best thing they did on their trip, but this is just a no-go now. There are, of course, some people who think that we just stop all this mommy-rich spoilt kid-woke nonsense. And sure you can feel that way. But there are others who don’t feel that way.«

So what do you do when there is a lot of disagreement?

»As a rule, we vote for it, and it often ends up leaning towards the more ‘dull’ outcome. But we just don’t want anyone to feel bad. Or that our intro camp will be ruined in the future, because we’re on the front page of a tabloid with a stupid story. In spite of this, we have made some of our most fun presentations which are far away from anything remotely offensive. The Harry Potter presentation is a good example. Alice in Wonderland. Party on Olympus. You have to really look for something in our intro camp that is not proper.«

Sober intro

Back at the Squid Game group, they have agreed on six games so far, including one where you cut a symbol out of a biscuit. They have banned a tug of war, on the other hand, because they could potentially lead to burn marks on students’ hands. They just won’t risk it, even though there are a couple of guys in the group, who think this is nonsense.

Tore Skov Jørgensen, also known as Big Tore, scribbles down all the new ideas on his computer. It is his first real intro camp, because his own was halted just five days before the buses were to run from Panum. The tutors who remember the corona year 2021 call it a »nightmare« with »funeral atmosphere« because the restrictions just kept piling up. When the intro camp was finally shut down, it was beer-in-hand dressed up in finished Kill Bill yellow overalls and with newly acquired samurai swords.

Tore Skov Jørgensen felt the same mood when he moved from Tanderup outside the provincial town of Assens to Copenhagen to study. His gap year travels had to be postponed, his friends moved to Odense and Aarhus, and he got to know his fellow students through a screen. Even when he tried to join the local football club, the answer was no. They did not take on new members during the pandemic, they said.

Former tutors often come to visit to party with us during the preparation weeks, and they think we have become dull.
Anna Arendt Blak chair of the intro programme at the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

»I could study and sit in my room thinking about everything that I missed. On the other hand, I did do a lot of reading, because what else would I spend my time on?«

In March this year, he went on a substitute intro camp for all those who had theirs cancelled. It was at Western Camp at Kramnitse on the island of Lolland, and everyone who took part in the event said that it was chaotic with 250-300 students.

»It was good to try it out, but at that time, we had got to know each other on the study programme, so you didn’t feel the pressure to meet new people.«

This is the main reason why he applied to become a tutor. There was a completely new layer of sociality that had to be caught up, he says. One of the presentations he had never experienced was the traditional horror presentation Proditium Wissenschaft, which has been refined over the past 14 years. When it dawned on the other tutors, it was organised so that Tore and another tutor should can walk the route following all the new freshmen students.

To the trauma psychologist

Nobody knows when the extensive intro camp tradition began. The medical student race has been a permanent part of the intro camp for 30 or 40 years, according to Anna Arendt Blak, but apart from this the past is just a big void. The intro camp is weirdly cut off from its history, even though it is nothing but tradition and a further development of existing intro camps. Those who have been tutors the longest can remember back seven years, and they have stories and presentations from those who were tutors before them.

»Former tutors often come to visit, to party with us during the preparation weeks, and they think we have become dull,« the chair says.

Alcohol culture was something that Anna Arendt Blak brought up herself for the internal discussion when she was a tutor the second time in 2019. Her and a friend drew attention to how much space was given to alcohol at the events.

»In the future, you will drink less alcohol at intro camps, I’m sure of that. I can also see this on our weekly seminar. Last year, we drank 6,000 beers, this year it was only 4,000. It is still a lot, but I think the number will go down by itself, because younger students have a different relationship with alcohol than I had. But no matter what, our principle is that all presentations should be fun, regardless of whether you are drinking alcohol or not. If it’s not fun, we haven’t done it good enough.«

But perhaps the change won’t happen quickly enough on its own. As something completely new, the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences has asked the tutors to appoint a staff representative for each of the different intro camps. This is not all. During the week, prominent people in the preparations have to meet up with a chief psychologist from Falck Healthcare who specialises in workplace culture and harassment. Anna Arendt Blak takes this in her stride.

»I think it’s because we’ve got a new dean (Bente Merete Stallknecht, ed.), who wants to make sure that we follow the times, which we do. If the chief psychologist had been here five years ago, I might have been more concerned. It was clear however, that he wanted us to not just keep up with current mores, but be ahead of them. He came up with tools and suggestions on how the intro camp could be made more inclusive. He suggested, for example, that there should be several sobriety supervisors in the evening instead of just one, and he introduced alcohol-free days.«

How do you feel about the faculty trying to influence your intro camp?

»I feel ambivalent about them getting involved. On the one hand, we are volunteers who spend five weeks of our summer holidays doing the coolest introduction to new students. You do that because it’s crazy fun, because it’s a great community, and because you want to make new friends. We work almost 24 hours a day for five weeks, and then they come and want to mess around with it.

But on the other hand, we also represent the entire faculty, and we are the first meeting with life as a medical student. We have a huge responsibility, and I believe that we are conscious of this. In my time as a tutor, the faculty has not really interfered a lot with the intro camp. The only thing I remember is that we are no longer allowed to take blood samples from each other anymore. But of course I may well have a completely different attitude when I see the head psychologist’s report.«

A number of tutors hark back to the time when new students could take blood samples on the tutors. Even though it led to a bit of bruising on the insides of their elbows, and you had to »chug mineral water because you felt dizzy,« it was the first time the new students used needles on a living person.

»It was an example of something that expanded the limits of what is possible, without it being offensive. You were allowed to feel uncomfortable, but it was no worse than that,« Lise Hemmingsen remembers.

In its very structure, the medical degree programme is a transgressive study programme. In the dissection room, you are challenged by both odours and the use of scalpels and corpses. In the macroscopic study hall, colloquially called ‘The dry’, large glass cabinets are filled with torsos, lower legs and neck muscles that have had the skin and fatty tissue peeled off, so that students can memorize each muscle and vein based on small, carefully placed, needles.

It was a threshold that you had to pass, several people say. They remember the first time they smelled cerebrospinal fluid, and Anna Arendt Blak remembers a dissection trip to the Czech Republic, where a muscle looked like pulled pork, which happened also to be on the hotel menu that evening. This tends to pull everyone together as a group. Even though you might not want to have lunch right after.

When Anna Arendt Blak takes the upcoming meeting with Falck Healthcare with stoic composure, then it is because of the good evaluations the intro camps get every year. The evaluations are drawn up in line with all other courses on the medicine programme, and the intro camp is the best evaluated course on the whole study programme. For the past seven years, the intro camp has allegedly only been surpassed once — by a course in forensic medicine.

Departures towards the land of shenanigans

On Friday morning, the 84 tutors are fully decked out in front of the student club’s bar. 12 Aztek emperors, 12 bullfighters, 12 surfers, 12 circus directors, and so on. The chair, Anna Arendt Blak, has just said that her eyes are not narrow due to a lack of sleep. But because she constantly wept when she wrote her final speech as a tutor and chair the day before. When everyone has showed up, she stands up at the bar:

»Today, it’s not about us. It’s all about the 375 new students. And they don’t even know what awaits them! We are their first meeting with social life at Panum and an important part of the beginning of their studies. It is both an honour and a privilege,« she says to the congregation.

There are, of course, some people who think that we just stop all this mommy-rich spoilt kid-woke nonsense.
Anna Arendt Blak chair of the intro programme at the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

There is rejoicing and catcalls from the crowd as the chair talks about the imminent departure towards »the land of shenanigans«. But there are also tutors who have their last intro camp, and when the speech comes to them, the congregation is quiet in solemn tribute. They then hug each other while they tell each other how much they sweat in their costumes.

A young guy is looking forward to finally seeing the new freshman students after all the long preparation. Another person is looking forward to the evening, where he is to be a caterpillar, drink gin and tonic, and smoke a bong in the Alice in the Wonderland sketch. A woman dressed like a Medusa with gold-coloured rubber snakes coming out of her hair has very deliberately put on a waterproof mascara this morning:

»You have to do this when it’s your last intro camp,« she says.

In front of Panum, there is already a queue forming up at the revolving door. In a long line, mostly young women are walking in with suitcases on wheels and large backpacks. This year, the gender distribution is more skewed than ever with 74 per cent women. Two young students are talking about how they are on the bullfighter team, and that they had no idea what to pack for the trip. Meanwhile, the tutors are on a large amphitheatre-like wooden staircase in the foyer. Each costumed group displays an A4 sheet with the text ‘106v’ or ‘102s’, indicating either a summer or a winter start.

Only when a circus director comes down and says that everyone is welcome to find their classes, do the coming students start to group up. Teachers and other staff film this whole scene when they drop by while they at the same time smile and say congratulations and have a good trip.

»All my friends have told me that the Faculty of Medicine and Health’s intro camp is wild,« says a student.

»Yes, they at least have a reputation for drinking a lot. But it’s 2022, so they will probably follow the times. Anyway, I’m not nervous,« says another.

This is how it continues until everyone is gathered. In the Jerne Auditorium, named after the Danish immunologist Niels K. Jerne who got the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1984, they are welcomed by the Dean. Then it will be a revue with live music in the basement and name games upstairs before the buses are finally filled and sent away.

When the first three buses arrive with their huge trailers, there is chaos in front of Panum. A bus stops on the opposite side of the road, while the other two take their places in front of the underground car park, so both a Tesla and a Skoda have to drive down the bike path to be able to pass.

»You just have to avoid Blegdamsvej street this Friday,« says a circus director when a fire truck in full siren mode leverages its way past the buses.

The new students are directed by another circus director with a vest and a moustache. From a long line, they fill the busses with large candlesticks and pitchforks, a pillory and a large red sponge that the caterpillar is to be placed on. For half an hour, the flow of people continues to fill the busses, while the conductor regularly interjects: »Bike coming! Car coming!«

An older man pulls his bike past the crowds of students and dressed up tutors.

»Remember the soft drinks!« he shouts with a huge grin.

Then he sees a milk crate full of gin, and he laughs again loudly:

»Uh! It smells like love, that one!«

And then they go, the surfers and the Greek gods, the cartoon characters and the musketeers, heading towards Jutland, Holbæk and Lolland.