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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

04-12-17 | By

Penn State: #1 Partying School and Leader in Collegiate Recovery

Football games, frat life, binge drinking—the iconic college experience, right? With an undergraduate population of almost 50,000, a thriving fraternity system, and a nationally-ranked football team, it’s no surprise that Penn State is one of the many universities with a powerful drinking culture. PSU students even created a new drinking holiday called “State Patty’s Day” in 2007, when Saint Patrick’s Day fell during spring break and students still wanted to celebrate (i.e. drink) at school with friends. It continues to be celebrated today, and even attracts students from other states.

In 2009, Penn State made headlines as the #1 Party School in America and was even featured in a broadcast from This American Life. In that same year, Joe Dado, a PSU freshman, was out drinking on a Saturday night at a frat party. The next morning, Joe couldn’t be found and a massive manhunt was launched in search of him—students passing out flyers, police, helicopters. Later that evening, Joe’s body was found at the bottom of a stairwell and his death was ruled an alcohol-related accident.

Despite the alcohol overdoses, citations, and property damage the campus had already seen over the years, Joe Dado’s death was a profound signal to the administration that significant changes needed to be made. Penn state already had committed resources aimed at reducing dangerous and destructive drinking, but Dado’s death may have opened the door for the then new (and long overdue) campus community: one in which students live in recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders.

The Need for a Recovery Community on Campus

That campus community is now known as Penn State’s Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC), the university’s first Student Affairs program specifically designed to help students in recovery from addictions. Amidst a campus culture of partying and glorified excess, communities like these are so essential for students in recovery—yet they’re still few and far between. When the Penn State CRC launched in 2011, there was an initially only small group of about five active students who formed the fledgling student organization known as Lions for Recovery.

This student organization was all that existed during the first years, while a group headed by Penn State faculty put the pieces in place to create the Penn State CRC.  That year Jason Whitney became Program Coordinator at Penn State. Jason was passionate about building a community of support for young people in the area because he knew from experience how important other recovering students had been for him in college. Jason got sober when he was halfway through undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder, which had a sizable 12-step recovery culture, which he credits as crucial to his success. “If I had only found five other students in recovery at Colorado, I don’t think I would’ve made it,” Jason says.

Jason got sober as just a 19-year-old college student. The first half of his time at CU-Boulder, he was in the thick of drug and alcohol abuse, but he spent the second half of his undergrad career in recovery. “I loved the recovery half so much more,” he says. “I was much happier as someone in recovery in college, but it was difficult. It required a lot of effort to sustain a recovery program in that environment.” Jason credits much of his success through that early recovery period to the support he had from other students in recovery. “It got easier and easier.”

A Recovery Community—and A Group of Friends

As an official program of Student Affairs, the CRC has a physical space on Penn State’s campus, and they are located in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. “It’s a very cool space,” Jason says, “and it’s not a clinical setting. The main room has a fireplace.  You don’t pass receptionists, you don’t sign in with an intake person sitting behind a glass window.” The space is designed to be a place of community and connection—separate from some other ‘traditional’ campus hangouts, like the bar.

Students in recovery at Penn State finally had a place to come together, find recovery meetings, and even form groups like a sober soccer team and a hiking group known as the “Spiritual Enlightenment Group.” Activities and groups were pretty haphazard in the beginning—with only around 5 to 8 students in the CRC that first year—but now, Penn State’s CRC is alive and thriving. Jason says there are around 30 students in the CRC now, and there are plenty of things going on in the community every day.

There’s a student-led seminar held at their center four times a week, where students can have an open discussion in a community that understands and supports them. The only requirement of Penn State’s CRC is that students involved in the program work a program outside of the CRC in addition to attending at least one CRC seminar each week, but Jason says most students will try to make it to every seminar that their schedule allows. Really, Penn State’s CRC students are a group of friends on campus, and plenty more that goes on outside of the CRC.

“The students work programs and go to meetings. But that isn’t all.  They do stuff together all the time,” Jason says. The students often have a choice of different activities they can do with other CRC students every night, and fellowship is especially strong on the weekends.  “Life is good for these college students in recovery—they have poker nights, head out on hikes, binge-watch movies and make dinner together. It’s classic college fun and hanging out, just without the alcohol or drugs you might find at other hangouts,” says Jason.

Surviving A Partying Culture

For many students—both in and out of recovery—Jason says “there’s this belief they’re missing out on some sort of epic party.” It’s not just that the students are offered alcohol and drugs directly.  There’s the expectation that college students should be using alcohol and drugs, which wears them down.  On top of that, there’s a common misconception that college students are “too young” to be in recovery, and that substance abuse is a “wild phase” they’ll “grow out of.” While this is true for some people, it’s a stigma that delegitimizes the major lifestyle changes that are made and maintained by students in long-term recovery.

Dr. Bo Cleveland, a leader in the field of collegiate recovery, coined the term “abstinence-hostile environments” to describe college campuses. “Lots of people imagine that the culture is inescapable,” Jason says, “that these kids must be white-knuckling every day of their lives.” And while that partying culture poses its fair share of challenges, students in the CRC handle it exceptionally well.

“What usually happens is the ones who work a program, who get involved in their communities, and who go all-in for recovery tend to not only catch up to the normal college student,” Jason says. “They actually outperform and surpass the progress of the typical student at the university.” Based on recent outcome studies, students involved in CRPs have higher GPAs and graduation rates than the mean student at most universities. It’s no easy feat, but success as a college student in recovery is more than possible — similar outperformance have been replicated at dozens of programs around the country.

Success in College, and Recovery

Students often struggle to transition back to campus.  “Most start out with an identity that’s ruined, a partier identity that is no help to them.” But, as they work a recovery program and stay close to a community of students, “they become developmentally powerful by the time they graduate — but students can’t make this kind of progress by themselves,” he says. “You have to do it with a group, and the CRC teaches you how to do that.”  This resilience can be seen in their involvement as alumni.  By Jason’s account, around 95% of Penn State’s CRC students are still in recovery and it is exceedingly rare to see them go back to active use after graduation.

Most students involved in CRPs nationwide have stabilized significantly in their recoveries before returning to college. While some colleges require up to a year of sustained sobriety to enter their program — and Penn State’s CRC prefers students to have a minimum of 90 days free of alcohol and other drugs — Penn State often works with students who have much less time.  Jason explained that “if all programs counted from zero days, I don’t think any program would show success rates in the 90 percent range.” These students with less than 90 days are considered to be on a “path to membership” and are not tallied in the Penn State program statistically until becoming members at 90 days. Members are recorded in the program’s statistics, which are impressive.  Since opening in 2011, Penn State has seen 92.9% of its CRC students go from 90 days to graduation without a single return to active use.

Collegiate Recovery Programs across the country measure success rates based on how many students who are actually in their program remain abstinent from substances. “A lot of kids at Penn State are counting days and then disappear,” Jason says. It’s not always clear whether a student has a Substance Use Disorder or not, but the CRC is not designed to force students into recovery—it’s a community of support for students seeking long-term recovery. For this reason, each CRP has a different sober time requirement for when students qualify to get into the program.

A Long-Term Recovery Model

To celebrate the students’ sobriety and academic achievements, the CRC hosts a chip meeting called “Celebration.” Students receive sobriety chips, and it’s a time to honor the CRC students who are going to graduate that semester. Celebration is held during Penn State’s homecoming weekend in the fall, and then during the spring “Blue-White” football scrimmage weekend.

The most amazing thing about Celebration is that alumni come back to join in the festivities—with about 50 to 60 people in attendance each semester. Penn State even has a designated alumni interest group called Lions in Recovery, made up of alumni in recovery and supporters of the CRC. These alumni still come back to lend support and get support, at both on and off-campus events. That also means CRC students continue to have that supportive community, even after graduation. “It’s part of a philosophy around ongoing support for a major lifestyle change,” Jason says. “We tried to design a model where ‘lifelong recovery’ matches the rhetoric.  We’ve established a working system of ongoing involvement and recovery support through our alumni group.”

Big Strides for the Recovery Movement

Penn State’s CRC has developed a model for recovery worth learning from. They’ve built a thriving community of 30 or so students in recovery on campus.  State College’s 12-step young people’s scene in town has also grown, partly because there are so much more students in recovery than there were seven years ago.   Lastly, Penn State has a recovery dorm on campus known as ROAR house (Residence of Addiction Recovery) House, which will house 16 students in the 2017/2018 school year.

Penn State’s Collegiate Recovery Community is solid evidence that recovery from substance abuse is becoming more recognized and respected as a lifestyle choice—even on college campuses. Jason is also the Northeast Representative of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), where he furthers this cultural change by helping organizations on other campuses start Collegiate Recovery Programs of their own.  His Penn State CRC co-hosted the AHRE National Collegiate Recovery Leadership Summit and Recovery Skiathon in February of this year, a gathering that drew 150 students from programs around the country to Keystone, Colorado for a low-cost leadership summit, fun, and fellowship.

The CRC offers students an opportunity to be open about their recovery, with the support of like-minded people. “There’s one drawback to anonymous programs,” Jason says. “It’s hard for outsiders to figure out how to get involved or find help.”  By establishing a CRC on campus, there is a name and number for people to call, which can be extremely helpful for others looking for support.  The Penn State CRC’s public relations policy does assume students wish to remain anonymous unless they specify otherwise, and the Penn State CRC asks its students to always follow the public relations policies of those 12-step programs to which they belong.

Cultural Change is An Inside Job

CRCs like Penn State’s are doing important work for the recovery movement, but there’s still plenty more to be done. The reality is, a CRC on campus can’t eliminate the existing culture of college partying. “A university has to try to change people’s minds about partying, and continuous prevention efforts and social norming campaigns are one-way universities try to address the widespread dangerous use of alcohol and other substances,” Jason says. At major universities like Penn State, with 9,000 or more new freshmen that come in each year, getting students to behave differently is easier said than done.  The way the Penn State CRC functions is by gathering enough students in recovery to offset the existing culture.  Even a small number of students is enough to do the job.  Without a CRC or CRP, students in recovery likely have no community to offset that partying culture. “Before these programs started,” Jason says, “it was a certain number of students would fail out and never go back to college.  Universities saw them as a lost cause.” With the support of a CRC, a return becomes possible.

In Jason’s eyes, “cultural change is an inside job.” CRCs may not remedy our society’s glorification of excess, but they do have the power to alter individual student lives for the better.  Students have a new opportunity to develop themselves, their interests, a field of study, a vocation—all of which are crucial in forming an identity as an adult, and as a recovering person. Even in the midst of rampant partying, it is possible to go to college and succeed as a student in long-term recovery. “By the time most students are succeeding in recovery at Penn State,” Jason says, “it no longer seems like a party school—even though partying still happens just as much as it ever did.”  Rather than transforming the college environment, Jason explains that it’s the students who do the changing: “They themselves are different people than when they started.  Many of these students become ideal students while performing service to their universities.  You can’t ask for much better than that.”

Jason WhitneyProgram Coordinator, Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community
The Pennsylvania State University
106 Pasquerilla Spiritual Center University Park, PA. 16802
Phone: (814) 404-4494 / Email: jxw411@psu.edu
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