Welcome Back to School: How to Stay Sober in College

By Zachary Siegel 08/26/15

“I felt that as a StepUP student I was not only safe and secure, but that I had an identity of which I could be proud and people respected [me] around campus.”

College Partying Students

“Recovery comes first, because if I can’t maintain that, I won’t stand a chance at this whole college thing,” said Julian M., a young and sober freshman who is a member of the Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. 

“My first semester at U of M is coming to a close and I am really proud of my accomplishments. I made connections with professors, went to office hours, and took my studies seriously,” he said. 

The main thing that I would like to see is an attitude of respect towards recovery and perhaps some level of awareness that students can explore recovery.

But this wasn’t always the case with Julian. Throughout high school, he was high on something every day, he told me. He couldn’t sit through a class without listlessly staring at the clock's hands slowly gliding forward, anticipating when the bell would ring so he could leave class to use again. 

Though Julian’s story is unique to him, he’s not alone in pursuing the college experience sober. Given reports of sadistic drinking rituals on college campuses or media-hallucinated messages depicting the use of drugs and alcohol as social criterion for friendship and intimacy, this may sound like a formidable undertaking. But across the country, there are now 135 collegiate recovery programs and communities which provide support networks for students in recovery from drugs, alcohol and eating disorders. These disturbances in behavior happen to occupy a higher than average prevalence on college campuses. 

Whereas outside of campus environments, ex-substance abusers flock to anonymous meetings, such secrecy seems to be going out of fashion with this new generation.   

Matt Statman, who is in recovery and also the program manager at CRP, believes students should feel empowered by their choices to get clean, not ashamed. “Part of what we do is address stigma by normalizing recovery on campus. This happens both intentionally and as a consequence of us just having a visible presence. It is part of our mission.” 

I picked up on a recurring theme that ran through each recovering students’ story. Having a close network of supportive friends, coupled with mentors, faculty, and counselors who advocate for them, these students are not just going through college without alcohol and drugs but are finding themselves thriving in an environment they once thought was intimidating, daunting and lonely. 

For instance, sober student Ariel Britt has been a member of CRP since its inception. “Coming back to Michigan as a person in recovery was one of the scariest things I have ever done. Little did I know, CRP began the same semester I came back… you can't make that up!” 

Similar to Julian’s drugged-out classroom experiences: “When I was attending Michigan while actively using, I was not present. There were so many amazing things I missed out on, one being graduating on time,” Ariel said.  

Ariel is now in the process of pursuing her master's degree in social work where one day she hopes to work at CRP and help other recovering students. This kind of life trajectory wasn’t on the table before she linked up with CRP, “with the support and push from staff, I decided to further my education.” 

Though both Julian and Ariel take academics seriously, I asked how they blow off steam or decompress from a heavy workload. “We go out to eat, or hit a movie on Saturday nights,” Ariel said. “Game nights are a big hit and a lot of my friends are talented musicians. We love to jam out when we can. More recently, a few of us started a running group on Sunday mornings. We are currently training for a half marathon.” 

Over 1,300 miles away in Austin, TX, students and faculty at the University of Texas share how they approach college and recovery. “Research shows that students tend to grossly misperceive peer norms when it comes to substance use,” said Lori Holleran, faculty at UT Austin who has been in an advisory position to the Center for Students in Recovery since its inception in 2004. She also graciously answered a lot of questions for The Fix about what these programs look like and who they attract. 

Students who are looking for answers might sign up for her undergraduate course entitled, “Young People and Drugs.” The class elucidates the bio-psycho-social-spiritual model of addiction. 

“They are challenged to be introspective, think critically about substance use, and experience people in recovery,” she said. For one of their writing assignments, they are asked to attend a few 12 step or other recovery meetings and reflect on the experience. From there, a wary student may join the events or activities offered by CSR. 

College recovery programs “illuminate the darkness for many,” said Holleran, who “comfortably” identifies as a person in long-term recovery. Like Statman at Michigan, through her research and social work, Holleran is committed to bringing recovery out of the anonymous church basement that reeks of sour coffee and into the light of day for all to see.

Like at Ann Arbor, UT Austin has something like a cushy clubhouse for sober students. Monday through Saturday, sober students—or any student, really—can show up at the center for meditation sessions, yoga, AA story-time, plenty of recovery meetings, even one for eating disorders called “Nourish.” But most just show up to be in the company of others, which acts as some kind of self-psychology-recovery-medicine.  

“CSR has been extremely vital to my continued recovery and enjoyment of life on campus," said Eric M., in his story. “I am part of a group that relates to one another in a way that most collegiate groups, formal or informal, simply cannot.” 

But support networks and friendships aside, these sober programs also emphasize service and community responsibility. Sober students at UT Austin speak to local treatment centers and high schools, and the message is: College sober is not a social-life-death-sentence, it happens to be empowering and fun. They even volunteer to clean up the football stadium. 

The same community involvement occurs at University of Michigan, “We do panels in classrooms many times each semester where recovering students who are interested in this kind of activism tell their stories. We do not pressure students to do this kind of work, but many see its importance and feel they are in a position to be involved,” said Statman. 

Sober programs at Austin and Ann Arbor are wide and accepting. Students in any phase of their drinking may attend the group activities and meetings, either to support a friend, a loved one, or just get some answers. Other such programs do resemble something like a treatment-model and are stricter with who is admitted. 

Augsburg College in Minneapolis is home to the StepUP Program. “It’s the largest residential collegiate recovery program in the nation, serving 100 students per year,” said Patrice Salmeri, director of programming at StepUP. The application for admittance requires students to have six months of continued sobriety and letters of recommendation from former counselors.  

More than a campus center to congregate at, licensed counselors trained to treat addiction with approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing (MI) staff StepUP. There are also recovery dorms for StepUP students, similar to a sober house setting, but rendered in an urban, artist loft-style. 

The program at Augsburg is deeply rooted in the 12 steps—abstinence is the obvious goal—where each student must sign a contract agreeing that relapse or possession of mood-altering substances are grounds for expulsion from StepUP. 

If two students in StepUP begin a physical and/or intimate relationship before they each have one year sober and one semester under their belt, both are subject to immediate peer review for probationary status. Several friends and acquaintances of mine, all in their 20s, have been through Step UP and the reviews are mixed, skewing toward the positive.  

Alex G. was studying math at Tufts but jettisoned to Hazelden in Plymouth, MN, to get help with his drinking. From there, he transferred to Augsburg and joined StepUP.

“I felt that as a StepUP student I was not only safe and secure, but that I had an identity of which I could be proud and people respected [me] around campus,” he said.  

“Professors supported and loved StepUP students,” said Chris Smith, who worked at Hazelden Plymouth while finishing his degree at Augsburg. 

Another friend of mine, Jacob A., who only wore clothes he bought at thrift stores, loved Augsburg his first year and a half but eventually hit a rough patch—not with the program but with himself. “Just being in a ‘safe place’ didn't actually keep me safe from myself after a while.” 

He elaborated, “I got off my meds for the first time since I got sober and I slowly started to lose it until the point where I couldn't handle any relationships or any curriculum the world provided for me, like work or school.” 

Jacob dropped out of StepUP and began to pour himself into the 12 steps. He did more than attend meetings, he told me. He stuck to a spiritual regimen of prayer, 4th and 10th step inventory, and a lot of service work, like speaking at local treatment centers. 

“I'm back in school now,” he said, “I'm convinced that I couldn't be functioning in this environment without that experience: dropping everything to work the steps with friends who were doing the same thing.” 

To this day, Harry remains a close comrade. He skateboards, makes music, and is finishing up a documentary about health disparities in North Minneapolis. In treatment, he played guitar but not in any way that made you want to gouge your eyes out. He’s younger than I am; he cleaned up from a bout with heroin and began his formative college years by enrolling in StepUP.

“There was really only one way of thinking and that was the traditional AA route, which was mandatory. There wasn’t much room for other beliefs and the program was not open to hearing of other possible solutions or ways to creatively and effectively deal with problems,” he said. 

“My current roommate and I were not of the clean cut, workout variety and were often looked down on, singled out for dumb things, like having relationships.” 

Program director Patrice responded to Harry’s quibbles by saying, “While the StepUP program is an abstinence-based program, students are free to explore which abstinence-based program they ascribe to. Most students choose a 12-step program such as AA or NA, however, others choose faith-based programs, SMART recovery, meditation meetings, etc.” 

Harry also said the recovery dorms cost a bit of extra money, which is to be expected given the facilities are new and modern, and also on the campus of a private liberal arts college. 

Which brings us to Sarah Day, alumna of the University of Minnesota, who, before graduating, made a lasting contribution to the sober student community by advocating for more than a glorified substance-free dorm, but a recovery dorm like the one across town at Augsburg. 

“It’s ridiculous that the only option for college students in Minnesota was a $40,000 a year private school,” Day said. 

What started off as a club called SOBER (Students Off Booze Enjoying Recovery) became a strong presence on campus with aim that U of M be an inviting place for the recovering student. 

“It's tough to come back to college after getting sober as a young person, especially when your peers are still going about on their average college experience…if it wasn't for SOBER, I would have had a really hard time making friends on campus.”

And again the theme of connectedness appears. It made me wonder, would these students be able to stay sober in college without all of the support? Maybe a better question is, would they want to? Would their college experience be reduced to studying in their room, sheltered, in hiding from the porch party down the street? Would they be seen as the campus hermits? Or not seen at all?  

With such programs emphasizing visibility, they are no longer shrouded in anonymity and secrecy, church basements, stale donuts, sour coffee. Sober students are being seen.

“I don’t believe that there needs to be some sort of recovery revolution," said Alex G. from StepUP. “The main thing that I would like to see is an attitude of respect towards recovery and perhaps some level of awareness that students can explore recovery.” Without hiding, without shame. 

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last interviewed Marc Lewis. Follow him on twitter.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.