Students in Recovery

Inside Higher Ed - The thought of college only ever crossed Wil Young’s mind in the sense that he thought he had no chance of going. He’d been expelled from high school in Texas for using drugs on campus, and never walked at graduation. “After that,” he says, “I was really kind of turned off of the whole education thing and was really down on myself and really shameful. I didn’t think I had a shot of going back to school.”

The thought of college only ever crossed Wil Young’s mind in the sense that he thought he had no chance of going. He’d been expelled from high school in Texas for using drugs on campus, and never walked at graduation. “After that,” he says, “I was really kind of turned off of the whole education thing and was really down on myself and really shameful. I didn’t think I had a shot of going back to school.”

Young spent the next two years drinking, doing drugs and getting into trouble. Finally, in 2003, he entered rehab, and that was where he heard about Texas Tech University’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery. Considered the gold standard of campus recovery programs, the center gives students who struggled with addictions the personal, social and academic support they need to succeed in college. Still, Young was doubtful. “I thought it was a great thing, but I didn’t think it would ever have any part in my life because I didn’t think I had any hope in education.”

Still, he decided to give it a shot, and filled out the general application for Texas Tech. But with his lack of SAT scores and poor high school grades, the university didn’t admit him. Rather than giving up, Young, visibly upset, explained his situation to an adviser at the center. He got a call back the same day, with unbelievable news: he was in. Soon after, Young would receive a letter from the university president confirming his admission, and offering a scholarship to boot.

In three years, Young had his bachelor’s degree. Now, still at Texas Tech, he’s wrapping up his master’s in marriage and family therapy (and is married himself, with a young daughter). He hopes to start in on his Ph.D. in the fall.

In a report this year, the U.S. Education Department said that to reach President Obama’s goal of making the United States the top producer of college graduates by 2020, institutions must address the pervasive substance abuse that causes student academic, social and health problems. One way they can do that is through comprehensive recovery programs: “For those students attempting to remain sober, recovery programs and supports are critical to preventing relapse into addiction or alcohol and drug abuse, as well as supporting student success in education,” the report said.

Most colleges have programs to discourage binge drinking or the use of illegal drugs. But recovery programs focus on those for whom addictions have become a serious issue, and who are seeking something much closer to rehab than just a periodic educational program. Slowly, more and more colleges have started what most of them call “recovery communities,” where students trying to overcome addictions can get specialized counseling and support that’s typically not available at traditional health centers.

“The general evolution of these collegiate recovery programs probably started in the mid-'80s, and they were very limited and very contained,” said Teresa Wren Johnston, director of the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery at Kennesaw State University. But, thanks in part to Texas Tech’s replication model, which provides a curriculum to help other colleges create, establish and expand their own programs, the centers are on the upswing nationwide. In the early 2000s, one or two programs were opening annually, Johnston said, and in the past five years professionals in the business began to recognize a need for some sort of collaboration between the 20 or so programs.

So this week, officials from a handful of college recovery communities are gathered on the Texas Tech campus in Lubbock to establish the leadership and membership of the Association for Recovery in Higher Education. They’ll explore the topics the group hopes to address – what recovery centers entail, what makes them successful and what they can learn from each other – at a national meeting in March.

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