As the largest recovery and co-occurring collegiate program in the nation, Augsburg University has gained a large amount of traction and caused a stir in the recovery community for 20 years, defining the college experience as much more than substances and partying. When Toby Labelle, Augsburg alumni from class of 1996 came up with his vision over two decades ago, he had no idea the impact that it would have twenty years later. Amidst a startling and devastating opioid epidemic, 637 Minnesota residents succumbed to a drug overdose in 2016. Augsburg’s program couldn’t have been more of a saving grace in a desperate time.
Stepping Above The Twin Cities
Tucked into the city of Minneapolis along the Mississippi river sits Augsburg University, a private coeducational school affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. However, inside the perimeters of the contemporary architecture are 84 astute students who are “Stepping Up.” These students are able to have a normal college experience. They travel abroad, play sports and serve on the student government. However, there is one added component: Recovery.
“StepUp is a program that stands apart from most colleges programs in the city, as well as the nation. We have the largest residential collegiate recovery program in the United States,” Tamarah Gehlen, StepUp’s program coordinator explains. “One of our unique hallmarks is that we have a 105 bed dormitory set up for our students. It’s a safe, sober, and supportive community.”
The brownstone styled dormitory, named “Oren Gateway Center” is strictly set up for students in recovery from drugs and alcohol, and is what clearly sets StepUp apart from alternate collegiate recovery programs. The dormitory offers a meditation room, shared kitchens, common-spaces, and a cafe. This gives students the unique chance to not just meet people who understand their sobriety – but to live within that supportive community. With a requirement of six months of sobriety, most Stepup students come from all walks of life. “We pull nationally. Some students come from a sober living home and have completed treatment. Some come from sober high schools and have demonstrated skills that they have tools to live a sober life. We’re really protective about our living environment” Gehlen stated.
Mainstreaming Recovery Onto Campus
Offering a plethora of services, StepUp opens the door for substance abuse to be talked about and mainstreams recovery onto it’s campus in a real and definitive way. Students in the program are required to take part in weekly appointments with a team of licensed counselors, catering to anything that the student may be having trouble with. “It’s really whatever the student needs. For some it’s a little bit of coaching, for others it’s a bit of heavy duty lifting and working through some hard stuff. It depends on the student, but that’s one of the great parts.”
“We may be someone’s first college or fifth college, however we want to work with them to give them ongoing support.” Tamarah noted. We offer a range of support for students with special accommodations, tutoring, and mentoring. Additionally, Augsburg has a number of staff members who are in recovery that look out current for students. “66% of our Freshman class identified with having a mental health concern, so we recently implemented multiple co-occurring counselors to meet the needs of those students. The support for our students across the board is much higher than most collegiate recovery programs elsewhere,” Gehlen suggested. “There are a number of students that come in that have an extremely low GPA, but when they get here it starts to skyrocket.”
Far More Than The Basics
Purposely not holding 12-step meetings onsite, students are encouraged to branch out into the community and start navigating life, sober. “College isn’t permanent, so we don’t want them to stay stuck on campus,” Gehlen noted.
However, “circle meetings”, the programs bi-weekly community meeting, addresses anything that students may need. “We get together and talk about what’s going on and what’s happening in our community. We have speakers come in and we are able to talk about new service opportunities or hear people’s stories. From learning how to navigate conflict, resume building, or changing a tire. These are the basic things that people need to know.”
The inspiring community also provides multiple opportunities for sober and safe recreation to help students get the entire “college experience” without the hangovers and regrets. “What do you say when someone hands you a beer on a Friday night? What about when someone asks you to go to the bar? These are things our students must learn to navigate if they want to thrive as a person in recovery after the world, and that’s our purpose of being here,” said Gehlen.
StepUp not only holds bi-weekly meetings, but additionally offers monthly events for their students, including escape rooms, a “soberbowl party,” in conjunction with the super bowl, and theme park trips; amidst many other activities for their students. An annual gala is held inviting alumni, donors, and current students for a night of celebration and camaraderie to show the work they’ve been doing. “The Gala is a really wonderful way to celebrate our students. Augsburg pays 40% of the budget of Step Up. The 60% is contributed through private donors, so it’s a great way to show them what we’re doing.”
Stepping Above The Stigma
Demonstrating the belief that recovery is more than abstaining from alcohol and drugs, each year, StepUp students engage in over 175 hours of community service. “Recovery is about growing and thriving. We believe that we have a responsibility to make a difference for others beyond our community,” Gehlen stated. StepUp students are given the opportunity to give presentations in treatment facilities, public school settings, college classes, community parent groups, and are frequently asked to share their personal experiences with various audiences throughout the Twin Cities. For many, these students are living inspirations and their transformative stories are able to break the stigma and educate others connected with addiction and recovery.
“We have a very low relapse rate. These students get so connected and involved in their recoveries and want to give back to their school and community that they don’t have time to relapse, and frankly, don’t want to use.”
It’s clear that success in StepUp is far more about maintaining sobriety. These students have been offered invaluable opportunities that many other facilities or Universities haven’t developed. From a practical skill-building to academic success, to thriving in communities.
No one should have to choose between recovery and a college education. Augsburg University is bridging that gap and breaking the stigma. They are stepping up and out, beyond the perimeters of Minneapolis – one student at a time.
For more information on StepUp, go here: StepUp