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Students smile in front of a poster that features the LIFT logo and reads “LIFT, Living Intentionally, Finding Togetherness”

Around 40 students are part of the Florida State University LIFT recovery program during the 2022–23 academic year.

Florida State University

Substance use, including drinking alcohol or smoking cannabis, is common among college students, but identifying the symptoms of substance use disorder is more challenging for students.

One 2009 study followed college students for three years and found nearly half of students engaging in at least one substance use disorder during their college experience, but only 3 percent perceived a need for help and 16 percent were encouraged by someone else to seek help.

At Florida State University, around 2 percent of all learners (over 1,000 students) identify as being in recovery from substance use and misuse. FSU’s collegiate recovery program, LIFT, seeks to help learners find community among peers who are also in recovery and educate the campus community on the risks and warning signs of substance misuse.

Angela Lauer Chong smiles for a headshot wearing a black blazer and silver necklace in front of an orange backdrop .
Angela Lauer Chong, associate vice president and dean of students, Florida State University
Florida State University

In the latest episode of the Voices of Student Success podcast series, FSU’s Angela Lauer Chong, associate vice president and dean of students, spoke with Inside Higher Ed about launching LIFT, a college’s role in supporting students in recovery and the need for wholistic support.

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Inside Higher Ed: What is LIFT and why is it needed on campus?

Chong: LIFT stands for Living Intentionally, Finding Togetherness, a name that was coined by our students in the program, and it is our collegiate recovery program at Florida State University.

We really pride ourselves—the vision of LIFT, is to provide wraparound support and community for our students who are either identifying as being actively in recovery from alcohol or other drugs, or students that we like to call recovery-curious, and who are really exploring their relationship with substance use, or substance misuse and are curious about their own relationship with substance. And we meet those students where they are to help them along their journey.

Inside Higher Ed: What are the services and resources offered through LIFT?

Chong: Really the cornerstone of the program is the community that it provides our student members. We have physical space on campus that is open to members of the LIFT community where there’s a lounge and gathering space and we also utilize that space for dynamic coaching sessions with our very talented staff. We have a robust clinical relationship with counselors in our Counseling and Psychological Services program. We provide a lot of social opportunities, programming opportunities and a lot of skill development. We help them with career readiness, we help them with conflict resolution, leadership training, it really runs the gamut.

Just like any student at Florida State University, we want them to build the skills that they will need to be successful beyond their college career.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned community is the cornerstone. I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about why that’s so important. It’s important for all students, but especially those students in recovery or who are recovery curious.

Chong: Certainly. We know that for any student to be successful, they need to feel a sense of belonging at their institution, right? And the students in recovery are no different.

They’re looking for peers with similar lived experiences, similar interests, and they need to find their people, they need to find that sense of belonging. It’s not necessarily a community that shouts from the rooftops that they’re a member. So I believe it’s the responsibility of our institutions to create these safe communities that students can seek out to find their sense of community, so that they don’t go through their undergraduate or graduate education feeling isolated, or that they’re on their journey to recovery alone.

We know that students are much more successful in their journey, individualized in recovery, when they are doing so in a supportive community. That’s why it’s just so critically important.

Inside Higher Ed: You mentioned this isn’t a community that’s always very out, there’s anonymous communities for students in recovery and things like that. How does FSU outreach to students to make it visible that LIFT is there for them, while making it inclusive and safe for those students?

Chong: Having peer outreach is really, really important. And we don’t only utilize students who are actively in recovery for that peer outreach. We feel that it is equally or even more important to have a robust allyship program.

So we spend a lot of time cultivating allies of students in recovery. We do a recovery ally training with our student organizations and a lot of our outreach is done by those allies, and not necessarily students identifying as being in recovery, so that it normalizes that.

We all know friends and family members and fellow classmates that are most likely in recovery, or have been touched by substance misuse in some way. So normalizing this as something that touches all of our lives in some way, and that there is a community here to help support our students and to help other students, maybe refer peers or fraternity brothers or roommates that they’re concerned about to our resources as well. That is by far our single most successful entry route into the program.

We also have a really robust referral program from all of our other resources on campus. So if somebody comes on our radar because they are having distress in the classroom or need some academic assistance, and this comes up as being a barrier to their success, our departments know where to refer them to and where to send them. So those two aspects are probably our most successful outreach opportunities.

Inside Higher Ed: What are some of the strategies that you and your team use to combat the negative stigma around recovery and what are some of those ways that you’re seeing campus become more recovery friendly?

Chong: I think a lot of it is engaging in the conversation, and normalizing the conversation.

Like I mentioned, we go into fraternity and sorority chapters, for example, and we train our students on what recovery is, what substance use disorder is, how it is a public health issue, how it is something that individuals experiencing it—they need help, they need attention. Really trying to reframe that for them to help kind of take away some of the mystery of it.

I feel that a lot of peers are afraid to start the conversation if they’re concerned about a peer and we give them the education, the tools and the resources to be able to really approach that conversation with a friend. And from a place of care, “I’m worried about you? Have you ever thought of this, how this might be impacting your education?” etc. And giving them the tools that they need to have those conversations, I think has helped a lot.

As well, seeing the robust ally program and the robust programming associated with LIFT, it just kind of helps normalize that this is another identity group on campus that is thriving, if they have the right support and community embracing them at Florida State.

Inside Higher Ed: Where do you see LIFT’s role, not only in supporting students who are in recovery, but also helping students identify some of those warning signs and giving them the tools to talk about what those issues might look like, if they see them on campus?

Chong: I think a big part of it as is, like you said, knowing what to look for, whether it’s in yourself, or a friend, or a classmate, or a brother or sister, and giving them the tools to really assess their relationship or their friend’s relationship with substance.

I’m encouraging parents during orientation to engage in conversations with their student about what their relationship with substance might look like in college. So really normalizing those conversations and helping them understand at what point substance use may be bordering on misuse, and how that may impact their student’s ability to be successful or your own ability to be successful.

Just like we talked to them about the symptoms of COVID-19, or strep throat or, mental health, anxiety, depression, we try to normalize what those behaviors might look like, and when you might want to engage in one of those conversations.

Inside Higher Ed: Who are some of those other key stakeholders on campus that are involved in this conversation around supporting students in recovery? And what are some of those other departments that are supporting LIFT’s work?

Chong: We are very fortunate at Florida State, we have such support for this program from the top, from the middle, and coming up from our students as well.

Our provost has been a champion of this program since the beginning, our former dean of the College of Social Work is now our current provost. And that support has carried forward; we’ve had support from our administration to financially be able to renovate space on campus to provide the special community space for our program.

We have really strong partnerships with our campus recreation department, our Counseling and Psychological Services, our student engagement, Fraternity and Sorority Life. It’s really been so heartening to see the support come from such a holistic framework, departments and stakeholders on campus—including our students—because everyone knows someone who has been impacted by addiction or substance misuse and everyone has a story, it’s touched every single one of us.

So it’s just been amazing to see how everyone has just rallied around this community with this level of support.

Inside Higher Ed: It reminds me of the eight dimensions of wellness. Students don’t exist in silos or departments; they are multifaceted and having that wraparound support is so critical to supporting all parts of them, academically and physically, among other types of wellness.

Chong: Absolutely. And that’s our framework. At Florida State, we take a holistic … we identify nine different dimensions of holistic wellness. And I can point to each dimension showing up within an arc collegiate recovery community, because every single dimension is so critically important.

Inside Higher Ed: As an administrator, where do you see the role of having these programs on campus to support student safety, but also their academic pursuits and supporting their students’ success? How are those related?

Chong: So I would say broadly, you know, just from a well-being perspective, that well-being is foundational to any level of student success that a student can experience. If you’re not well, I don’t think that you can learn. If you’re not safe, I don’t think that you are in a great position to be successful. So I feel that our holistic well-being foundation, you know, really paves the way for all levels of student success. And for students who identify as being in recovery, or are somewhere on their pathway, you know, this is a critical element to be able to set that foundation of well-being and safety so that they are able to thrive and be successful in the classroom.

Inside Higher Ed: So LIFT has been around for a couple of years now. Where do you see the future of the program going? And what are your hopes for it in the future?

Chong: My biggest goal for this program is, I want every single student who steps foot on Florida State University’s campus to know about LIFT. Whether they are in recovery, or know someone in recovery, or if they’re curious about recovery, I want them to know what our program is.

Because inevitably, they are going to have a peer, a roommate, a classmate, that they may need to have a conversation with about some of these issues. So that is, when I wake up in the morning, and I think about the future of LIFT, that is my highest priority.

In addition to that, I think we have so much potential to take what we have created at Florida State University, and replicate it at other institutions, to broaden this level of support for other students, they should never have to make a choice between their recovery and pursuing an academic career at the institution of their choice. Engaging with alumni to make that happen, and helping this movement really grow, just beyond the borders of Florida State.

Inside Higher Ed: If you had to give advice or insight to an administrator or a peer institution, what would you share that you’ve learned in the past few years?

Chong: That these programs do not grow overnight. That you can’t just hire a staff person and set up an office and students come out of the woodwork saying, “I want to be a part of this community.”

It takes a lot of intentionality. It takes a lot of outreach, and a lot of support from a lot of different areas from the university. So to really be sure that you’re cultivating that support from the top, the middle and from the students up, is critically important.

And that you have those peer voices at the table so that students can see that there is an existing community that they want to be a part of. That’s really critically important. And just to have to identify your champion and have some patience.

It’s a lot of hard work, but it is truly, truly worth it.

Listen to previous episodes of Voices of Student Success here.

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