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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

04-03-17 | By

Collegiate Recovery at the University of Michigan: The Alternative Party Scene

Sure, college is a time for learning, self-development, forging a career path, all that jazz—but, isn’t it a time for some hardcore partying, too? That was definitely a major part of the college experience for Alex, a University of Michigan graduate whose time spent rippin’ and rollin’ through undergrad propelled him into recovery. In his junior year, Alex came clean about his drug and alcohol problem but didn’t know how to separate himself from the partying culture on campus.

“Before I graduated, I was in a fraternity—my entire social scene was drinking and partying.” At the time, Alex says it didn’t seem realistic to stop drinking. “What am I going to do then,” he thought, “live by myself and be a hermit?” Heavy substance use has become intertwined with collegiate life—as a social activity, as a networking opportunity, even as a rite of passage. In recent years, around half of all full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 across the country report engaging in regular binge drinking, illicit drug use, or both.

Despite all of this, Alex still graduated, and his graduation gift was a trip to a treatment center in Michigan shortly after graduation. He managed to put together some time in sobriety, found a good job that paid well, but started getting high again after several months. “I wasn’t happy,” Alex says. “I didn’t have any drive.” His dream was to go to graduate school in his field, but, when he got sober, he thought that dream was over. “I thought that environment wasn’t conducive for my sobriety.” After his substance use in undergrad, would grad school jeopardize his sobriety?

His relatives had their hesitations—as do many people in recovery who want to pursue a higher education. Fortunately, Alex knew that a Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) existed at the University of Michigan, which has been pioneering an alternative culture to the party scene for its students who are living in recovery. The CRP connected Alex with a much-needed community of support. With that support in place and 4 months sober, when Alex was accepted to U-M’s graduate program, he says, “It was one of those Higher Power/God moments. I just knew this was what I was meant to do.”

Campus Can Be a “Recovery-Hostile Environment”

For people in recovery who are interested in going to college or going back to school, the ‘standard’ campus culture can be discouraging. There are endless temptations to drink and get high—the bar scene, football games, Greek life, or just socializing and meeting new people. Blacking out at the bar or experimenting with drugs seems “normal” to plenty of college students (and may even be expected in some social situations).

Matt Statman, the Program Manager of the CRP at U-M, likes to use the term “recovery-hostile environment” to describe a college campus. He learned firsthand, when he was a college student in recovery at the University of Michigan, how challenging college life can be as a person in long-term recovery. This is why Matt got involved in the collegiate recovery field—to provide specialized support to this severely underrepresented population on campus.

In 2009, a group of social work students at the University of Michigan started the Students for Recovery (SFR) organization, to provide some much-needed support for students living in recovery. Matt was part of that original group. Just a few years later, the university committed to supporting those students who are in recovery by funding an official Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) and hired Matt as the Program Manager. He’s been the head of the program ever since, helping students in recovery at U-M to overcome their “recovery-hostile environment” and access the same opportunities to higher education as their peers.

College Recovery Life Has its Struggles

For all students, college is a time for identity formation. For students in recovery, college is a time of forming that adult identity, and forming their identities as people in recovery from Substance Use Disorders—separate from a former identity centered in alcohol and/or drugs. This was crucial for Alex’s sobriety and his return to campus. Before he was ready to get sober, Alex had met Matt in undergrad, so he knew the CRP was a place where he could build that new identity in grad school.

Beyond the constant partying culture, there can also be misunderstandings and “micro-aggressions,” as Matt calls them, to contend with on campus. Whether it’s other students joking about being “alcoholics” after a wild night of partying, or even professors making claims about
how heroin addicts “never get sober,” building that strong sense of identity as a recovering person is a challenge. For this reason, Matt has a major focus on identity work with the CRP students. He says that all of U-M’s CRP students consider recovery an important piece of who they are.

The CRP gives those students a place where they are accepted, where they aren’t told they’re “too young” to be in recovery, and where they are supported in their efforts. The program’s primary goal is to create both a physical and a cultural space on campus where recovery can thrive, where students can find and support one another. It’s a community working to ensure these students have access to the same opportunities in their education and their futures as any other student.

Students Deserve Their Recovery and Their Education

A student in recovery shouldn’t have to make a choice between their recovery and their education. But, Matt says it might feel that way to someone who’s in recovery and heading to college without the right support in place. They’re entering this recovery-hostile environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar city where they don’t know anyone. Where do they find support? Is it safer to just avoid college altogether to protect their sobriety? The CRP at the University of Michigan is doing its part to provide an alternative campus culture and a supportive community.

“Education is recovery capital,” in Matt’s eyes. Another student in the CRP at U-M, David, agrees wholeheartedly. Though David was actively using and drinking as an undergrad at the University of Georgia, was suspended from school twice, and had to delay his graduation because he was incarcerated, he sees his U-M graduate work as an asset to his recovery. “I feel like it provides a sense of purpose,” he says, which can play a major part in long-term recovery (and happiness in general). David acknowledges that “the CRP played a pivotal part in my recovery” and made the transition into grad school at U-M less intimidating.

What Goes On at the University of Michigan’s CRP

For students already enrolled at U-M who are struggling with substance use, the CRP can connect them with help. Matt—who’s a licensed social worker and addictions counselor—typically provides referrals so these students can temporarily detach from their schoolwork or take a lighter course load, attend treatment or outpatient services, and reenter U-M as people in recovery.

For students early in recovery or newer to Ann Arbor, the CRP provides some structure and accountability to keep them on track. Students will meet with Matt individually for ‘Recovery Check-Ups’ during the first few months, getting plugged into the community and developing a recovery program that works for them. “Matt does a good job,” Alex says. “He’s not overbearing, it’s not like you’ve got someone standing over you watching you the whole time.” Really, he just provides that extra bit of support and accountability that can help students maintain their recovery.

The University of Michigan has a physical space on campus designated for the CRP, where students can meet for these check-ups, for weekly groups, and just to hang out. The Michigan students who commit to the Collegiate Recovery Program:

  • are motivated to stay sober and abstinent from substances.
  • must identify what working a recovery program means for them—whether that be attending a certain number of meetings or calling a sponsor a certain number of times each week, attending a home group, doing 12-step work, going to therapy, regularly meditating, exercising, doing yoga, or any number of other activities.
  • are encouraged to address underlying issues in addition to their substance use, like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.
  • attend at least 1 of the 2 weekly discussion groups at the CRP.

Once students have been around for awhile, their programs are less structured and they decide what’s working for them. Most importantly, those veteran CRP students become crucial supports for the newer CRP students at U-M, welcoming them to the community and bringing them along to local meetings or events. Some of the students are in their late teens and early 20s, some are in their 50s. There are undergrads, some graduate, and even Ph.D. students, all in different areas of study. “It’s a diverse group that might not mix otherwise,” Matt says, and they’re connected by a powerful common bond.

The CRP Provides an Alternative Party Scene

In Matt’s words, the CRP is a “space for alternatives” to some of the recovery-hostile college norms. “You don’t have to be crazy to have fun on a college campus,” Matt says. Alex has found great friends in collegiate recovery and is thankful to have a place separate from the usual campus craziness. “It’s a different life being a college student,” Alex says. “There are different pressures, different timelines for assignments, and it’s nice to have a community going through the same things as you.”

Michigan’s CRP community is a tight-knit group, with group activities going on almost every weekend and students even sharing their meals together. Instead of meeting up at a bar or going to a keg party, the CRP students head to a movie, go bowling, or throw sober parties and tailgates. They host all kinds of recreational activities, like movie screenings, recovery speaker events, and even campus-wide events like their yearly St. Patrick’s Day sober skate. Each year, students from the CRP also participate in national activities, like the Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s (ARHE) Recovery Skiathon that was just held in Keystone, Colorado and the National Collegiate Recovery Conference that’s coming up in July.

Students in Recovery at U-M are Thriving

Amidst the flurry of misguided opinions that addicts ‘never get sober,’ or stigmas that say addicts won’t thrive and succeed, U-M’s CRP students are proving the exact opposite. They have their ups and downs like all students, but Matt says “they’re incredibly resilient,” and have access to a powerful community of support. They’re doing well in school—both Alex and David are at the top of their respective graduate programs—and the CRP at U-M has incredibly high graduation rates (over 90% of CRP students). This April, ten CRP students at U-M are graduating, earning both undergraduate and masters degrees.

Not only is it amazing to watch them graduate, but Matt says “it’s rare in a helping setting that you get to be with someone that long.” The Collegiate Recovery Program at the University of Michigan does an incredible job of helping students gain the tools they need to sustain recovery after leaving college, and the support won’t stop there. The CRP also provides long-term recovery support by staying in touch with students after they graduate. Matt says this is the most effective way to help people stay sober, and it’s a model that could benefit the treatment industry and its approach to recovery as a whole.

Changing the On-Campus Experience

As a pioneer program for collegiate recovery across the nation, U-M’s CRP is breaking down long-time stigmas that have surrounded recovery. Matt, who’s in recovery, been to prison, and earned his master’s degree, says he and most of the CRP students are happy to talk about their recovery. Many of the students are active in recovery advocacy work, and more students on the U-M campus than ever before actually know about the CRP or know someone personally who’s in recovery. Matt thinks these are good signs for the recovery movement.

But, he also says there aren’t enough Collegiate Recovery Programs on campuses across the country, and they’re especially lacking among community colleges. Matt is a board member and the Midwest Representative of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) and is constantly working to help further the collegiate recovery movement. The most important impact that CRPs can make on college campuses is within the lives of individual students. “Ten years ago, these students would have gone another ten years destroying their lives,” Matt says. The CRP “kindles hope in a population that would otherwise have gone on a lot longer and hit a much deeper bottom.”

“Life is incredible,” Alex says. “Everything I could have wished for or wanted has come true.” In his eyes, the adversity he’s faced gives him that extra drive to succeed. Even now as a grad student with activities and events centered around happy hour, being a part of the CRP and the recovery community at the University of Michigan “takes away a lot of the feeling of being different or being left out.”

For David, diving headfirst into the recovery program at U-M made the transition back into school easier. “I made sure I did what I needed to do to focus on recovery.” He’s a firm believer that, if you put your recovery first, anything is possible. “Don’t let people tell you that school is not possible in early recovery, or wherever you are in your recovery,” he says. His advice to people in recovery hesitant about heading to college or back to school? “Just do it. Honestly.”

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