Author: Marjorie Valbrun
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James Cafran’s early experience with college was rocky.
He’d attended Marist College, a private institution in New York, but dropped out at the start of his junior year. He tried again a year and a half later and transferred to Stony Brook University, which is part of the State University of New York system. He left just two weeks after enrolling there.
“I thought it would be a fresh start, but the change in environment didn’t do anything,” he said.
Drugs and alcohol had taken over Cafran’s life by then. Two days after leaving Stony Brook, he went into a 30-day drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and then moved to a long-term living facility designed specifically for young adults like him struggling with addiction.
He returned to college a year later, this time at Sacred Heart University, a Roman Catholic university in Fairfield, Conn. That’s where he found his place — and his calling.
Three sober years later, Cafran is now the coordinator of the university’s newly launched Collegiate Recovery Program, or CRP, one of 136 such programs at colleges and universities across the country and part of a growing effort in higher ed to help students with drug or alcohol problems.
While public health officials and policy makers have been focused on stemming the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic, higher ed institutions have directed attention to tackling alcoholism and drug addiction among students. College leaders and student affairs administrators are increasingly embracing on-campus recovery programs and centers among their expanding initiatives to meet the social and emotional needs of students and help them overcome barriers that keep them from earning degrees.
Texas Tech University has a large, well-established recovery program that is considered a national model. It has dozens of paid staff, and well over 100 students participate in the program. Rutgers University has a program that has operated for 30 years. Kennesaw State University in Georgia and Augsburg University in Minneapolis also have long-standing recovery programs.
The Programs Make a Difference
There is a growing consensus among mental health and addiction experts that these programs are needed.
“Colleges are very heterogeneous with respect to availability of substances on campus as well as the strictness of policies related to alcohol consumption and other drug use,” says a report by the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “Nevertheless, the college social environment can pose significant challenges for students in recovery, especially in settings where drinking and drug use define the social environment. Those challenges are compounded by adjusting to new academic demands, freedom from parental supervision, and financial pressures, which can also be relapse triggers.”
Both the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have, in the past, endorsed expansion of recovery support services in academic settings and said they should be a priority.
College recovery programs provide a place for students in recovery to get addiction counseling, take part in support groups and 12-step recovery programs, seek quick help if they break their sobriety, or simply hang out and talk in a supportive, alcohol- and drug-free environment among peers. Some programs, like Sacred Heart’s, even offer weekly meditation or yoga classes.
The program at Scared Heart is modest — Cafran is the only paid employee — but university administrators hope to eventually offer dedicated housing, on campus and off, to students in the program, much as the colleges and universities with established recovery programs already do.
Cafran described the new recovery center as more of “an after-crisis treatment center.” He said although the university is in the process of hiring an addiction counselor to be based in the student health services center, professional addiction treatment services will be provided by an off-campus contractor.
The recovery center, located in a renovated lounge space in the Main Academic Building on campus, opened at the start of the academic year, but university officials started promoting it over the summer and recruiting students interested in the program and in enrolling at the university.
So far just six students who self-identified as having alcohol or marijuana addictions or who are in recovery are currently in the program, although that number may grow given the record high rate of marijuana use among college students. Other students, who don’t have drug or alcohol problems and are not recovering from addictions but who support the goals of the program, are also actively participating.
“The goal is to reach the entire school and to destigmatize addiction,” said Cafran, 24, who graduated from Sacred Heart in December 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing. “We want to reach as many people as possible, including supporters of recovery,” and let students know “that they can be sober and have a life here without drugs and alcohol.”
More importantly, the center will provide students with support services they would normally have to get off campus, which is not ideal, according to the report by the Center on Young Adult Health and Development.
“Such external services, on their own, might not be adequate to support their recovery because they are not tailored to address the unique set of challenges college students face,” the report said. “In the face of such challenges, many young people in recovery find themselves choosing between recovery and staying in school. For them, dropping out of college begins to feel like a safer and more attractive alternative to exposing themselves to an environment that runs counter to their recovery. In effect, for these students, a pro-drinking, pro-drug college social scene becomes a barrier to college enrollment and completion.”
From Opponent to Fan
Larry Wielk, the dean of students at Sacred Heart, initially opposed the idea of a recovery center.
“I was fairly vocal about my reticence about starting a recovery house,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t support having one on campus, but that I felt we were not ready as a campus.”
He also worried about student outcomes.
“I felt that if we didn’t have the support systems in place, we were not going to be able to help them and would be potentially setting them up for failure,’’ he said.
Students who are involved in campus recovery programs actually have better academic outcomes, according to the University of Maryland School of Public Health research center.
Evidence suggests that CRPs “contribute to both better academic outcomes (e.g., graduation rates, GPA) and successful recovery,” the center’s report states. “Members perceive CRP services as helpful, stating that the recovery support services are fundamentally critical to their ability to stay in school, succeed academically, and maintain their wellbeing, especially for students who are at an earlier stage in their recovery.”
The report found that the benefits of being involved in the programs appear to last even after students graduate and also seems to have an effect on classmates not involved in the programs.
“Some experts believe that the benefits of a CRP extend beyond its membership to the entire student body. A strong campus-based infrastructure of recovery support services might nudge some students toward abstinence and recovery if they are already contemplating it. Moreover, students in recovery are likely to have a positive influence on reducing their peers’ substance use, because their personal experiences represent authentic ‘cautionary tales’ that can ‘dispel the allure of abusive drinking.'”
That why more colleges should consider starting programs, said Tim Rabolt, executive director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, a network of colleges and universities that share the mission of supporting students in recovery. The association represents collegiate recovery programs and provides institutions with information, resources, connections and technical assistance about starting them “to help change the trajectory of recovering students’ lives.”
“Our hope is that there will be a program on every campus in some form,” Rabolt said, adding that the organization gets regular inquiries from colleges across the country interested in starting recovery programs.
The 136 existing programs represent an approximately tenfold increase in the last seven years; there were roughly a dozen programs on college campuses in 2012, according to the association.
Rabolt said the opioid epidemic helped raise awareness about and support for college recovery centers.
“Even though opioid use wasn’t as rampant on college campuses, it was one of the talking points of the media, so it definitely helped with the exposure,” he said, noting the many opioid-related events and town halls held on college campuses during the height of the epidemic from 2014 through 2016.
Wielk appreciated that the issue warranted such attention, but he still worried whether the time was right for Scared Heart to start a recovery program. He was persuaded by Bill Mitchell, a longtime member of the university’s Board of Trustees, whose idea it was to start the program.
“Bill didn’t necessarily disagree, but he’s just a guy in a hurry,” Wielk said. “He had been talking about a recovery house for about a year and talking to people in our advancement office about raising money for it.”
Mitchell, a self-described recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 29 years, also lobbied Sacred Heart’s president, John J. Petillo.
“I had rehearsed a speech,” Mitchell recalled of his meeting with Petillo. “Four words in, he said, ‘I’m in.'”
Next he had to get the Board of Trustees to buy in.
“I committed that we would not dig into the endowment or operational funds and that the program would be self-supporting,” he said.
Mitchell offered to spearhead fundraising for the recovery program and helped bring donors to the university’s annual fundraising gala in June 2018. The event is usually held to raise funds for scholarships, but last year it was dedicated to supporting the recovery program. A record $1.3 million was raised, a substantial portion of it a gift from Mitchell, who was formally honored at the gala for his longtime service to and support of the university. A second fundraising gala in September, separate from the annual fund-raising event for scholarship funds, raised $203,000 more.
With funding in place, university administrators reached out to Caron Treatment Centers, which operates facilities across the country, for help developing a strategic plan.
The plan involved surveying students and faculty and conducting a needs assessment to determine “what we had in place on campus to support this kind of program and what we needed to do,” Wielk said. He said some 30 to 35 individual meetings were also held with students and student leaders, student affairs and admissions staff, faculty members, and trustees to get their input.
Once the decision was made to move ahead, Sacred Heart sent mass emails to local high schools, treatment centers and various organizations in the area to let them know that the center was opening — and welcoming recovering students interested in attending the university.
“I can’t even tell you how many emails I’ve gotten in response to the announcement launching this program,” Wielk said. People told him stories about their drug addictions and alcoholism, or those of their relatives or friends. “It certainly resonated with a lot of people, whether it impacted them or someone they know or love,” he said. “It’s great to be able to help students get back on their feet and help them become whatever they want to be.”
Such enthusiastic support for campus recovery programs was not always the norm in academia and, despite CRPs’ recent growth on college campuses, the support is not universal, according to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education.
Students with drug or alcohol problems are more likely to be ignored or overlooked on campus, where the focus of student support programs are “on maintaining and mitigating the damages of the college experience” and not on “creating a place within higher education for this marginalized population,” the association says on its website.
“While other groups of classically marginalized populations have begun to find a foothold and support within the university settings (e.g., LGBTQ, gender equality, ethnic identities), those in recovery have largely been left out in the cold due to the fact that their needs run counter to the dominant narrative of the college world.”
That narrative is clearly being rewritten by people like Cafran and Mitchell, who understand on a deeply personal level what it’s like to be the beneficiary of a recovery program and how to help launch and run one.
“We’re burying kids in our country every month from drug overdoses,” Mitchell said. “We’re not going to save the world, but we are going to save lives one by one over time, and end the stigma.”
Cafran believes his own story of addiction and recovery can be instructive for students who come to the center for help, even though “it’s not always the most comfortable for me to share things that happened in my past.” That includes abusing alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, Xanax and other substances, as well as being hospitalized for extreme intoxication — all of which he once attributed to circumstantial events instead of addiction.
“I got really messed up with drugs and alcohol very quickly,” he said. “I was hanging out with the wrong people. I was never looking at myself and admitting I had a problem.”
Going from drug addict to sober college graduate was not easy, but Cafran stayed the course in recovery despite the obstacles he put in his own way as he bounced from one college to another.
Marist: “I was getting in trouble, getting sent to the dean’s office,” he said of his time there. “I was placed on disciplinary probation and threatened with being kicked out.”
Stony Brook: “I was blacking out almost every night,” he said. “I was doing all kinds of drugs and alcohol. There was nowhere for me to go. I called my parents and said, ‘I’m ready to get help.’ Two days later I was in rehab.”
Sacred Heart: “I never thought my past would be a good thing on my résumé, but it turned out to be a good thing.”