The plan, Anne Thompson decided, was to stay close to home. So the Connecticut high school senior chose a regional college, moved into her dorm, went through orientation and signed up for several classes.
But, she soon realized, that setup wasn't going to work. Her alcohol and drug addictions wouldn't allow her to focus on academics -- especially not in an environment where she was surrounded by weekend drinking. Instead of starting classes, Thompson entered rehab.
Then Thompson heard about a college program that would allow her to stay on her recovery schedule, work toward her degree and meet students who are in similar situations. In August 2004, she enrolled in the StepUP program at Augsburg College, a Lutheran institution in Minnesota.
Thompson, 22, is on schedule to graduate this spring as a sociology-urban studies double major. She will join nearly 400 other alumni who have gone through the program over the past 10 years.
“I wouldn't have been able to get as far as I am if not for this program," Thompson says. "College is a rough transition for recovering youth. I needed counselor and peer support to hold me up when I was falling."
Plenty of students receive outside help for their substance abuse problems while enrolled full-time in classes. But few have access to a recovery support system and a residential program that's embedded in a college. Patrice Salmeri, director of StepUP, says when the program began in 1997, resources for recovering college students were limited.
Augsburg's program, which has grown from 23 to 64 students, is open to those who are in a recovery program and have six months of continued sobriety. Ages range from 17 to 26, and the program attracts students from all over the country. About half of them started at another institution but had to drop out, and about half are first-time college-goers, according to Salmeri. Applicants are accepted through Augsburg and then enter the program, which is offered at no extra cost.
Students live together on two floors of a substance-free dorm that also houses program offices. Beyond going to two Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week, they are expected to take a full load of classes and meet regularly with StepUP's licensed alcohol and drug counselors, of which Salmeri is one.
The students have floor meetings to talk about their progress and check in with sponsors, many of whom have overcome their own addictions. During sessions, students discuss time management, decision making and other aspects of college life. Each floor of the dorm is monitored by resident advisers who are upperclassmen in the program.
Thompson says she doesn't view StepUP's requirements as burdens. "It makes my life easier. I have the same opportunities as other college students."
Salmeri says students in the program don't report feeling ghettoized. They're encouraged to play on athletics teams, join student groups and get involved in student government.
"Other students look at these people who have gone through this journey and I think they look up to them," Salmeri says.
The integration, of course, has its limits. StepUP participants typically stay away from house parties and events that involve alcohol and other substances. If they relapse, students are dismissed from the program but not necessarily from the college. (It depends on the incident -- whether it's taking a sip of beer or it's continued drug use, Salmeri explains.)
In the program's 10 years, 84 percent of students have remained clean during their time at Augsburg, Salmeri says. She doesn't have figures to show how they fare once they graduate.
Thompson says after graduation she'd like to find employment on a college campus. And she's admittedly nervous about her next step.
"I tell people it's going to be difficult to leave. I've grown up here."