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Sober Nation

Putting Recovery On The Map

06-12-17 | By

St. Cloud State’s Recovery Community: Redefining the College Experience

Partying and heavy drinking are perceived as normal on many college campuses, but how much of college is really a party? “There’s a subculture associated with college,” according to Thaddeus “Teddy” Rybka, the Recovery Community Coordinator at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). “People think it’s ‘a rite of passage,’ or ‘all my friends are doing it, so I should be doing it,’” Thaddeus says. “You think everyone is doing it.” Turns out, that’s not as true as you might think. And St. Cloud State is making every effort to change that perception on its campus.

In 2015, students at SCSU estimated that 43.5% of their peers engaged in high-risk drinking behavior (having 5 or more drinks in one sitting), yet the actual rate was 29.9% of students. Hardcore partying is perceived as ‘normal,’ but it’s not the norm. And, what’s referred to as “partying” isn’t always a party—for almost 15% of U.S. college-aged students in 2015, it was a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Plus, not all college students drink. In fact, at SCSU, around 40% of the student population either doesn’t drink regularly or doesn’t drink at all.

Some of these students are living in recovery from SUDs, staying sober in school with the support of SCSU’s Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC). But, even more, students simply choose not to drink—in part because of the efforts of SCSU’s education-based prevention program, UCHOOSE. This counterculture to the “normal college experience” is so crucial, for both students living in recovery and students in general. “Our goal is for our students to have that same college experience as everyone else,” Thaddeus says, “just without drugs and alcohol.

CRCs Open Possibilities: Recovery and a College Education

For students in recovery, that powerful subculture of heavy drinking and partying makes their college campus a “recovery-hostile environment,” to say the least. As they pursue their degrees, it’s crucial that these students have a safe environment and a supportive community. Thaddeus knows first-hand, from his own experience as a college student in recovery, just how important that support is. “I went through treatment, then found myself on a college campus that didn’t have that recovery support, and fell flat on my face,” he says. “It was a traumatizing experience.”

Like plenty of other people, Thaddeus feared he couldn’t be in recovery and be in college. “I kind of gave that up,” he says. “I thought I couldn’t handle it—but thank God for collegiate recovery.” Fortunately, Thaddeus enrolled at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where he participated in the StepUP Program—the largest residential-based CRP in the country. “I really thrived in a sober environment,” he says, and that experience motivated him to get involved in the Collegiate Recovery field. “Lord knows I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Collegiate Recovery,” Thaddeus says, so it’s become his mission and purpose to help other students in recovery.

Thaddeus accepted the job of Recovery Community Graduate Assistant at SCSU five years ago, and he’s thrilled with the work the program is doing now as its Program Coordinator. The St. Cloud State Collegiate Recovery Community is the very first residential recovery community to be established at a public university in the upper Midwest. “It’s a relatively new movement,” Thaddeus says, but it’s growing. When he was at Augsburg College, there were only about 40 other CRPs across the country. Now, there are almost 200. These are promising strides, but Thaddeus is thinking bigger: “I really believe every campus in the country should have some sort of Collegiate Recovery Program.”

Building Recovery-Friendly Environments

More CRCs and CRPs are appearing across the nation, but SCSU’s is one of the few that offers a residential recovery program, and it’s the only program that offers multiple pathways to a degree. It’s a system of sober support not only for St. Cloud State students, but also for St. Cloud Technical and Community College students. Too few technical and community colleges have CRCs in place, and SCSU’s program serves as a hopeful model for the collegiate recovery movement.

Thaddeus Rybka

Thaddeus also talks to some students who are struggling with substance abuse or dependence, to “let them know there’s a solution, that there’s a way out.” Both he and the CRC students serve as an example of that. But, a Collegiate Recovery Program is not a treatment program, treatment facility, or halfway house. The CRC can connect students in need with clinical resources or referrals, but the main purpose of the community is to build a recovery-friendly environment on campus. That kind of safety and support can change the entire college experience for St. Cloud’s students in recovery.

For one of those students, Tom Marcroft, the CRC has helped him to return to SCSU—even though it’s the very place where his addiction began. When he first attended SCSU, it got to the point where “I was just using by myself pretty much day in and day out,” he says. He eventually dropped out, found himself homeless in Illinois, and became seriously ill before seeking help. Now, more than 7 years sober, he’s back at SCSU preparing to apply to medical school. Tom had his doubts about returning: “it felt like jumping back in the fire and taking this huge risk.” But, once he learned about the CRC, his outlook changed entirely. “I thought, ‘oh my God, this is amazing!’” he says. “It was immediately perfect.”

St. Cloud’s Sober Housing On Campus

Students who have been sober and active in recovery for six months can apply to St. Cloud State’s CRC and gains access to their sober housing at the Coborn Plaza Apartments on campus. Each student has a private bedroom in a four person furnished apartment, located in a safe, private wing with other students in recovery. “They get that peer support and accountability 24/7,” Thaddeus says, “but we’re not breathing down their necks.” Rather than feeling like they’re ‘missing out’ on some iconic college experience, “it allows them to say ‘hey, I don’t need that stuff anymore, I’m having fun, and I have true friends who care about me.”

For Tom, who’s back at SCSU after already earning his bachelor’s in drug and alcohol counseling and working as a counselor, the balance of privacy and community is so important. “It’s great to be an intimate part of a Collegiate Recovery Community, having these people around you, even if they are much more diverse in their stage in recovery or life or their goals—we’re all people in recovery who also have to deal with studying and sometimes work.” The residential community allows Tom and other CRC students to connect and build a support system on campus. “To be isolated and think you’re the only one, it’s not healthy,” Thaddeus says.

Strengthening Student Recovery

All CRC members live in the sober residences on campus, provided that they meet a few basic requirements:

  • sign a Recovery Community Housing Agreement, pledging to stay sober.
  • attend 2 recovery meetings of any kind each week (AA, NA, SMART Recovery, etc).
  • meet with a counselor on campus on a regular basis—once per week for the 1st semester, then on an as needed basis after that.
  • attend and participate in weekly process meetings

They’re pretty simple requirements, all designed to strengthen students in their recovery. It doesn’t cost the student anything extra to be a member of the CRC. In fact, students in the residential program automatically get a $1,000 scholarship each semester if they abide by the housing agreement. “We recognize our students might be able to work as much as they’d like with the time commitment required to be a part of our community. The scholarship is meant to give them some financial piece of mind.”  Students also can get involved in community service and advocacy work, like bringing meetings into treatment centers or the Recovery Community’s annual fundraiser. Thaddeus says, “it’s important to put a face and voice to recovery, to show the community that recovery works,” just as much as “it’s important to give back. That’s how recovery works—it’s a reciprocal relationship.”

For Tom, “recovery is certainly about going to meetings and doing specific things,” he says, “but it’s also about how you grow spiritually and professionally and as a human being.” The CRC has facilitated opportunities for Tom to speak to psychology classes about his recovery and speak with LGBT communities—two communities he had no connection to prior to attending treatment. Now, Tom is up front about his recovery status and enjoys sharing his experience to help other people understand. This is what Thaddeus hopes CRCs can offer all students in recovery. “We want to give students the opportunity to embrace their narratives.”

An All-Inclusive Recovery Community

Coborn Plaza Apartments

St Cloud State University’s CRC also hosts events, like a monthly concert called “Recovery Rocks.” A live band comes to campus to play, recovery milestones are recognized between sets, and anyone is welcome to come. Plus, the CRC students do some pretty standard hanging out—trivia night, bowling, fishing, potlucks, snow tubing. “We have fun in recovery,” Thaddeus says. “If you’re not having fun in recovery, what’s the point?”

Beyond the residential CRC, there’s also a recovery student organization known as STARS (Students Taking Action in Recovery and Service). The organization was actually started by Thaddeus, in an effort to include more people in St. Cloud’s Recovery Community. “I had students approaching me asking ‘how can I get involved?’” he says, which inspired him to create a more accessible option. There’s no six-month requirement, anyone can join—on-and off-campus students—and you don’t even have to be in recovery.

STARS is meant to unite a community of people who are interested in having fun, without the use of drugs and alcohol. It’s also inclusive for students in recovery from other things: PTSD, eating disorders, self-harm, sex addiction, gambling addiction. Some students have a parent or friend who’s dealing with substance use and find strength in the STARS community. There are also students who just want to have fun without substances. “We’re obnoxious and crazy as there is,” Thaddeus says, “but we don’t drink or use.”

Raising Awareness on St. Cloud State’s Campus

But, it’s not just the Recovery Community that’s making waves—St. Cloud’s education-based prevention effort, known as UCHOOSE, has done serious work to raise awareness about high-risk substance use. The concept behind UCHOOSE is “You choose your experience, your limits, your outcomes,” and the goal is to empower students to make informed decisions. “In the past, the media has portrayed our university as a party school,” Thaddeus says. “We’ve been trying to change that reputation, and the subculture on campus.”

St. Cloud State Campus

Jen Matzke, the Assistant Dean of Students for Student Life and Development, is responsible for the creation of the CRC and spearheads SCSU’s prevention efforts. “We wanted to create an environment safe for students in recovery,” Jen says, “and we had cultural issues to address in the environment on campus. In 2005, high-risk drinking at SCSU was at its peak: 58.6% of the student population reported engaging in high-risk drinking within the last two weeks. By 2015, that number was down to 29.9% of SCSU students, which is below the national average. “But it didn’t happen overnight,” Jen says. The change is a testament to the hard work of Jen and her team, and the innovative programs implemented at SCSU.

The university is creating anonymous self-assessments of alcohol use for students, helping them understand whether their alcohol use is problematic. Workshops are given explaining the physiology of alcohol in the body, what a standard drink is, and how to reduce your risk when drinking. Students design and lead alcohol education events on campus, like Atwood After Dark—a sober alternative to the typical Friday night activity, where students play games like mini golf and life-sized Jenga (awesome, I know) all while learning about alcohol, other drugs, mental health, and suicide prevention. Jen and her team recognize that prevention and education won’t reach every student, but the transformation happening on St. Cloud’s campus is undeniable.

A New College Subculture: Recovery

St. Cloud State has built a welcoming recovery community on campus over the past 5 years. There’s a stigma associated with being in recovery, especially on a college campus. “Sometimes students come in here, they’re hesitant about revealing they’re in recovery because of the stigma,” Thaddeus says, “but after a while, you see students really embrace their identity.” That evolution, in large part, is due to the alternative sober community offered by SCSU’s Recovery Community.

For anyone in recovery with fears about going to college or going back to school, Tom says, “that fear can be healthy. We want to prepare as much as possible.” Life happens and plans may fall apart, but you can do the footwork—look for recovery resources, find meetings, look into counseling, build a support system. Above all, Tom says, never lose sight of your motivation: “What has me working towards this goal? What’s going to keep me working towards it?”

Contact Information:

To learn more about the St. Cloud State Recovery Community please visit their website @ www.scsu.mn/recoverycommunity

Like the Recovery Community on Facebook: https://facebook.com/scsurecovery

Follow SCSU Recovery Community on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SCSU_Recovery

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