‘No one should have to choose between recovery and a college education’: What students in recovery need from their schools

By Alex Wittenberg

Sam Gunnarson told himself he wasn’t going to use drugs and alcohol in the fall of 2014 when he arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as a freshman. College was a fresh start, a good time to distance himself from his growing use in high school in his hometown of Rochester, Minnesota.

But his resolve crumbled on that first day with his first invitation to a party.

Weeks later, his semester days were defined by his addiction. He’d wake around 2 p.m. in his dorm room, which was often littered with empty liquor bottles and trash, head for the shower and then run back to his room, ashamed to see anyone living around him. His first errand was to the local grocery store, where he would steal a bottle of booze.

“Then I would just drink,” Gunnarson said. He would sit in his room and play videogames or watch movies, drinking until the liquor ran out. If the proof were low, he’d run back to the store and steal another bottle.

He eventually left Eau Claire with a 0.5 GPA and enrolled in a 30-day treatment program. He never went back to that campus.

Augsburg College – Minneapolis, MN is one of the country’s top colleges for recovery

Today, four years later, Gunnarson is a typical college student. He still enjoys playing basketball, videogames and watching movies. He attends class. His Augsburg University apartment door bears his Snapchat profile code, and his living room TV, in lieu of a stand, sits slightly lopsided atop an inverted recycling bin — college, indeed.

He’s also sober, supported by — and a leader in — Augsburg’s StepUP program, a campus recovery community for students in long-term recovery. Those resources include peer groups, trained counselors, support groups and sober living residences, where he and others can support one another day by day through the stresses and challenges that college entails.  

Such resources are part of the standards advocated for by the Association for Recovery in Higher Education that colleges and universities should offer to students in recovery. Augsburg, located just across Riverside Avenue from the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, is one of ARHE’s members and is regarded as one of the nation’s top “recovery campuses.”

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has never been an ARHE member and has never applied to be.

Designated recovery campuses are still a minority among the 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Although the number is growing every year, still only about 100 ARHE campuses are in place now, with at least 80 looking to start within the next year or so. In Minnesota, only three colleges have achieved the designation: Augsburg, St. Cloud State University and MCTC.

Campuses don’t have to be a member of ARHE to support students in recovery. The University of Minnesota’s Rochester campus (UMR) is not an ARHE member but does have a campus recovery community that is working to support students in long-term recovery.

The Twin Cities campus has tried to do things to support students in recovery, including offering drug addiction counseling and a peer group to support non-alcohol use during social activities. But engagement in the peer group has lapsed; many students on campus remain unaware of resources; and students in recovery say supportive resources simply don’t exist for them in a meaningful way on this campus.

Aiming for ARHE membership would help, said Patrice Salmeri, former president of the ARHE. The standards set by ARHE are an indicator of seriousness. “You have to have certain components in place to become an institutional member,” she said.

Becoming a recovery college does take some money. For campuses with just support or peer programs, it might cost about $10,000 to fund a graduate assistant or a dedicated campus space with resources. For a program that includes a residence hall, the figure would be closer to $50,000, she said.

But funds are often not the main obstacle, she and other advocates for recovery campuses say. More often, resistance comes from stigmas perpetuated largely from administrators who worry that by creating these programs they are admitting the campus has a “problem” with addiction. Resistance is also systemic, they say — growing out of institutional policies that expel students who struggle with addiction instead of directing resources to provide a community to support their recovery.

“It’s still so stigmatized that people say, ‘We don’t want those people on our campus,’” Salmeri said. That approach, she said, not only misunderstands who those students are — and what they’re capable of contributing — but also creates an uncompassionate, cold and uncaring culture across a campus toward those students.

“No one should have to choose between recovery and a college education,” she said.


Stigma makes students misunderstood

Gunnarson, who was put on academic probation and expelled from his dorm after the fall 2014 semester, says it’s hard to say if the recovery resources he has found at Augsburg could have helped him back in 2014, a time when he was clearly in need of serious addiction treatment. But he definitely credits those resources for his current success. He made Dean’s List his first two semesters at Augsburg, an achievement he credits to StepUP’s support.

“It just kind of clicked right away,” he said.

Gunnarson’s success doesn’t surprise Salmeri, one of the founders of the StepUP program. In reality, she said, students in recovery often outperform their collegiate peers academically and by being generally active in the community.

“They’re out speaking all the time, whether it be to high schools, PTAs or government officials,” she said.

Speaking out is often what has created the programs at many of the Big Ten schools where students in recovery find the most support. Often, students have had to battle significant administrative stigma to do so.

Caleb Pederson, the leader of UMR’s Recovery On Campus Community and a person in recovery, said he has seen the withering effect of stigma, even at UMR, a pre-medical campus, where students should understand that addiction is a disease and not a moral failure. Pederson said he’s had trouble convincing administration that there’s a real need for the program, which has made securing long-term funding difficult.   

“I think if we had a booming community like StepUP it would help everyone see it’s a need,” Pederson said. But as it stands, he said, “I wouldn’t want to identify [as a person in recovery] without a community of students in recovery already there.”

Indeed, the stigma students in recovery face is real: “There’s a lot of individuals that still have this core belief that people that have problems with alcohol or illicit drugs have some kind of moral weakness,” said Audrey Klein, executive director of the Butler Center for Research, a subsidiary of the addiction treatment and advocacy organization Hazelden Betty Ford. “The biggest misconception about addiction is there’s a particular type of person who becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs.”

The reality, she and others say, is that addiction is a disease. The longstanding treatment involves, in large part, making sure a supportive recovery community is at hand.


Community as the answer

Cara Ludlow, program coordinator of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs program at Michigan State University, agreed that creating a recovery community means facing down significant administrative stigma that can prevent the creation of the very programs that help recovering students — namely, spaces and peer groups that support the students who are there.

“There’s always this perceived notion of ‘Well then we’re going to attract those kinds of students,’” she said.

As an ARHE recovery school, Michigan State has built a strong set of peer and support programs housed in spaces on campus. This fall, it will offer recovery housing, Ludlow said. 

Students at Michigan State say they need those spaces to organize structured activities that support their sobriety efforts. The Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) at Michigan State offers dedicated lounge space, social events, staff support and individual recovery planning. The Traveler’s Club, another Michigan State student group for those in recovery, hosts social events and offers volunteer opportunities.

Taylor Struna, the student leader of the CRC and the treasurer of the Traveler’s Club, said these organizations help recovering students feel included on campus while also supporting their recovery journey.

“The Traveler’s Club and the CRC has personally allowed me the opportunity to meet all the friends I have here and has made me feel comfortable and confident as a student,” said Struna, who is a student in recovery.

Ludlow said the recovery housing option was just recently approved on her campus for fall 2018. She sees this option as being important to the university’s inclusion of all students.

“That housing piece for students in recovery is also huge to have a space and sober environment that’s on campus so students can have that college experience but free of drugs and alcohol,” Ludlow said.

But not all recovery campuses have recovery dorms, which can be difficult to develop. The Twin Cities campus tried to start one three years ago, but failed when too few students signed up. (The dorm was developed as a Living and Learning Community largely marketed to first-year students. The university does have a substance-free LLC.)

Housing can be helpful. When Gunnarson was at UW-Eau Claire, many of his worst moments amid addiction happened in his dorm room. “At that time I felt like I finally had space to do me,” he said. “And what that looked like was crazy isolation.”

But although advocates stress the importance of having a residence hall specifically for students in recovery, it can be just as important — as well as cheaper and easier for a school — to provide a space for students to simply meet and hang out. These kinds of campus spaces can help students feel connected with a community of peers and less “atomized” amid campus climates often associated with drinking and partying.

When those groups cannot meet, students in recovery feel disconnected and dispirited. At the University of Minnesota, the S.O.B.E.R. club — Students Off Booze Enjoying Recovery — is not meeting this semester. The club’s purpose was similar to that of the programs Salmeri and Ludlow say are important for students in recovery.

Liz, a Twin Cities campus student in recovery who asked to be referred to by her first name only, has witnessed the current lack of participation in S.O.B.E.R. during the past year or so.

“I tried going to one of the meetings and no one was there … and then the person responded, ‘Yeah, sometimes another person comes but usually we don’t have anyone,’” Liz said. “I think there’s a lack of participation because there’s nothing saying, ‘There’s a sober club.’”

Amy Hess, a student in recovery at the University of Minnesota who has returned to school in her mid 40s, said the absence of that type of resource at the university works against the visibility of the community — and against the well-being of all students who seek sobriety at the university.

“If I was trying to get sober as a young college student, I personally would not have been able to do it because the recovery community is invisible here,” Hess said. “We are not meant to get sober and recover alone.”


Marketing proudly

At the University of Michigan, the Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) also offers social events, recovery support and a dedicated space for students in recovery to meet.

“Not every student in recovery here wants to come to our collegiate recovery program, but the ones who do come overwhelmingly say that it benefits them in immeasurable ways,” Matt Statman, program manager of CRP, said.

The biggest driver, Statman said, is “word of mouth from other students,” who tell their peers in recovery groups that the space is an important place to get support. But the campus also proudly markets the program at every opportunity, he said.  

“We talk about the program to students at student orientation and the parent orientations,” Statman said. “We go out and do panels in classrooms all the time.”

Thaddeus Rybka, program coordinator of St. Cloud State University’s recovery program, said his program was started through the university’s Office of Student Life and Development in 2012, following years of high-risk drinking that posed a serious threat to student health. He markets the community through outreach events — they held a 5K run in early May — and says he has seen support for it grow on all fronts during the past five years. In 2019, the campus will open a new wellness center offering 24/7 mental health and recovery services, he said.

The result has been real changes in campus climate, Rybka said. In 2005, 60 percent of St. Cloud’s student body was engaged in high-risk drinking. Today, that number has dropped to around 30 percent, an achievement Rybka credits to the school’s recovery program and increased efforts to educate students about the dangers of drinking. The program provides on-campus AA and NA meetings, recovery housing, peer groups and substance-free social events.

That kind of improvement is something Rybka thinks could happen at the University of Minnesota, where participation in binge drinking has already dropped during the past 10 years but where excessive alcohol use still puts student health at risk. He referred to the alcohol poisoning death earlier this year of Mitchell Hoenig as a sign the university at least needs to consider deeper discussion about the issue of drug and alcohol use.

“It’s sad the student died, and maybe that can spark action of doing more education,” Rybka said. “Maybe it will start a collegiate recovery program at the U of M because there’s a need. There’s a lot of students that need that support and services.”


ARHE membership is a start

Membership in ARHE can, at the very least, be a starting point for providing such services. Indeed, eight of the 14 Big Ten schools are now members of ARHE, according to an AccessU: Addiction ranking of those schools’ services to students in recovery. All scored higher than the University of Minnesota.

Three schools — Ohio State, the University of Michigan and Rutgers — gained 4.0 GPAs for their active support groups, peer activities, recovery housing and counseling services. Schools with lower grades, including the University of Minnesota, were not members.

The University received a 1.5 GPA or a C- grade, ranking 13th out of the 14 Big Ten schools.

After the report card was published, Matthew Hanson, chair of the Provost’s Council on Student Mental Health, defended the university’s record for more than 30 years of providing services for students in recovery and said the S.O.B.E.R. group would be rebooting in the fall.

But Hanson also said that next year the council would discuss the needs of students in recovery and that staff at the university would consider membership in the AHRE.

“We’re thankful for the work of University students paying attention to, and bringing forward information about, this population,” Hanson said in the statement.  

Salmeri said it’s important to have some exceptional student leaders who can move through such windows of opportunity and fight to create these resources — students who don’t flinch at the first “No.”

“I think you have to have some champions on campus,” she said. But there’s no reason to believe anything will change unless students in recovery step up and push for the change themselves, Salmeri said.

“It’s important to have some fortitude and persistence, because you’re going to hear ‘No’ many times,” she said.