Students in Recovery

Increasing numbers of colleges create centers for those dealing with serious addictions and classwork at the same time.
July 13, 2011

The thought of college only ever crossed Wil Young’s mind in the sense that he thought he had no chance of going. He’d been expelled from high school in Texas for using drugs on campus, and never walked at graduation. “After that,” he says, “I was really kind of turned off of the whole education thing and was really down on myself and really shameful. I didn’t think I had a shot of going back to school.”

Young spent the next two years drinking, doing drugs and getting into trouble. Finally, in 2003, he entered rehab, and that was where he heard about Texas Tech University’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery. Considered the gold standard of campus recovery programs, the center gives students who struggled with addictions the personal, social and academic support they need to succeed in college. Still, Young was doubtful. “I thought it was a great thing, but I didn’t think it would ever have any part in my life because I didn’t think I had any hope in education.”

Still, he decided to give it a shot, and filled out the general application for Texas Tech. But with his lack of SAT scores and poor high school grades, the university didn’t admit him. Rather than giving up, Young, visibly upset, explained his situation to an adviser at the center. He got a call back the same day, with unbelievable news: he was in. Soon after, Young would receive a letter from the university president confirming his admission, and offering a scholarship to boot.

In three years, Young had his bachelor’s degree. Now, still at Texas Tech, he’s wrapping up his master’s in marriage and family therapy (and is married himself, with a young daughter). He hopes to start in on his Ph.D. in the fall.

In a report this year, the U.S. Education Department said that to reach President Obama’s goal of making the United States the top producer of college graduates by 2020, institutions must address the pervasive substance abuse that causes student academic, social and health problems. One way they can do that is through comprehensive recovery programs: “For those students attempting to remain sober, recovery programs and supports are critical to preventing relapse into addiction or alcohol and drug abuse, as well as supporting student success in education,” the report said.

Most colleges have programs to discourage binge drinking or the use of illegal drugs. But recovery programs focus on those for whom addictions have become a serious issue, and who are seeking something much closer to rehab than just a periodic educational program. Slowly, more and more colleges have started what most of them call “recovery communities,” where students trying to overcome addictions can get specialized counseling and support that’s typically not available at traditional health centers.

“The general evolution of these collegiate recovery programs probably started in the mid-'80s, and they were very limited and very contained,” said Teresa Wren Johnston, director of the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery at Kennesaw State University. But, thanks in part to Texas Tech’s replication model, which provides a curriculum to help other colleges create, establish and expand their own programs, the centers are on the upswing nationwide. In the early 2000s, one or two programs were opening annually, Johnston said, and in the past five years professionals in the business began to recognize a need for some sort of collaboration between the 20 or so programs.

So this week, officials from a handful of college recovery communities are gathered on the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock to establish the leadership and membership of the Association for Recovery in Higher Education. They’ll explore the topics the group hopes to address – what recovery centers entail, what makes them successful and what they can learn from each other – at a national meeting in March.

“We feel it’s time because there seems to be this general momentum nationwide for adding recovery as part of the alcohol and drug prevention services on college campuses,” Johnston, a co-creator of the association, said. “They seem to be just kind of a plethora of different schools…. They’re all a little bit different.” These range from programs that house recovering students together and conduct drug testing, to those that entail just a couple of weekly campus meetings.

For instance, at Kennesaw State’s four-year-old program, students first enter the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery, where staff specializing in addiction treatment use clinical techniques like motivational interviewing to support the social and academic success of students while they abstain from substance use. After students have been sober for six months, they enter the center’s Collegiate Recovery Community, which includes weekly meetings and seminars on relapse prevention and community building, and meetings with academic advisers.

There’s also a potential scholarship for students who have a 3.0 grade point average and participate in the “peer community,” in which recovering students are trained to go back into the classroom and educate their peers who are most at risk of developing substance abuse problems, such as fraternity and sorority members and incoming freshmen. This program is unique to Kennesaw State, Johnston said, and is crucial to reach out to students who are abusing drugs or alcohol but not being treated. (Since the Collegiate Recovery Community began in 2008, its enrollment has shot from 8 students to 50 last year. Nearly 70 percent of them transferred from another college, where their substance use led them to withdraw or be kicked out. The rest of the students are incoming freshmen who chose Kennesaw State because of this program, or who already went to school there and developed an addiction along the way.)

Not all recovery programs are able to be as ambitious. Southern Oregon University, which used the Texas Tech model to create the Community of Recovery in Education (CORE) in 2010, has the same philosophy as Kennesaw State: provide a well-rounded recovery system that supports the student’s individual, social and academic needs. Participants check in at weekly recovery groups and optional weekly study sessions, and can also get further counseling from case managers, if they prefer. The three-year pilot program doubles its enrollment annually (to about 18 this year), and now students are coming to the university specifically for CORE, the only program of its kind on the west coast, said Taylor Burke, coordinator of student success initiatives at Southern Oregon.

Even excluding marijuana, Burke said, the state still ranks first or second, depending on the study, for drug use nationally. Burke wants to counter the campus culture of permissive and pervasive experimentation and use of drugs and alcohol. “We had many students in recovery on campus, and there was a sense of isolation and disconnect between those students. What we knew from really studying and working with successful programs nationally,” she said, was that “students could be more successful in their education if they were supported in their recovery.”

But the fear and stigma associated with discussing substance abuse has impeded efforts to start programs at some colleges, Johnston said. “If we acknowledge that we have recovery, we acknowledge that we have addiction on a college campus,” she said. “It really needs to be from the top down to get support, and sometimes we’re starting at the grassroots level and fighting our way up.”

That’s the case at the University of California at Riverside, where Audrey Pusey, associate director for residence life and student conduct, is having a hard time getting administrative backing for the recovery community that she and a colleague have taken on as a side project. Right now, it’s small: a weekly 12-step meeting and the 10-student group Healing Highlanders (the university’s mascot), which spreads the message to peers about recovery in hopes of attracting more who are struggling but aren’t getting help because they’re too scared. (About half of Riverside students are Asian Americans, who often don’t seek help because the associated stigma in the Asian culture is particularly intense, experts say.) But Pusey envisions a widespread community partnership between the university and local recovery agencies like the Betty Ford Center.

Pusey, a member of the recovery association’s executive board, was deeply moved when she heard Young’s story at the recovery conference two years ago. She wants at-risk Riverside students to have a similar safe haven available to them – and run-of-the-mill campus prevention efforts like fliers and lectures won’t help. Despite the fact that more and more students are entering college after going through rehab, “You’re not going to find a lot of university resources” for recovery on her campus, Pusey said. “Obviously academic success is the most important thing, but they can’t be academically successful if they’re struggling with addiction.”

When she’s trying to garner support for her cause, Pusey said, administrators often point to statistics showing that Riverside’s student drug and alcohol use rates are below national levels. But that is not a valid indicator of addiction on campus, said Kitty Harris, director of the Texas Tech center and associate dean for outreach and engagement. “I would think that many universities that don’t think they have a significant problem probably aren’t aware of some of the hidden use that takes place on their campus,” Harris said. “They’re not the kids that are partying everywhere; these are often kids that have already been in recovery in high school…. [The question] is not so much, ‘Are you taking care of the kids that are on your campus that are in trouble?’ It often switches to, ‘Are you providing services for students that come to your campus that are seeking to stay, that are seeking to be in recovery?' ”

Take Young, for example, whose story and pessimism are typical of many students who enter the Texas Tech center. “I was really down on myself and there was a lot of times when I didn’t feel like I was in the right place in classes,” he said. “The only time I did feel like I was in the right place was in meetings at the center, around those other students.”

When it comes to grades and graduation rates, students in the Texas Tech center are significantly more successful than their peers. And fewer than 6 percent of the students in recovery relapse, Harris said, while nationally, many struggling students who enroll at a college drop out in their first year – sometimes in their first semester.

That can spur people to action. A program opening this fall at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where a local family counselor set the idea in motion, was, like Riverside’s, built from the ground up. After watching a family member drop out of a different college in the state because of addiction, Carol Rose wanted to make sure her relative would have institutional support when returning to school – support that she said was sorely lacking at the student’s former college. When the student “fell apart,” Rose said, “There was no offering. She was out. That was it.”

This year, if the Rose’s relative enrolls at Charlotte, a weekly 12-step program will aid in the recovery process. It’s not a huge offering, and the center doesn’t even have a director yet, but it’s a start.

It’s obvious that Harris, of Texas Tech, and other leaders in this effort not only help programs, but also inspire them. Pusey, for one, admits that, having been trained in prevention, she never thought to develop a recovery community. But now she’s grateful for the support. “We’re not doing physics, that’s for sure. But there’s a certain art to what they’re creating here,” she said -- helping students re-establish their education, develop a sense of pride and give back to their campuses. “It’s pretty amazing. It’s life-changing.”

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