Sobriety 101: Penn State Ramps Up Support For Recovering Students

By Kari Andren

October 23, 2011

As a high school student, Erik G. was seduced by the college football passion and legendary party scene at Penn State.

He found change from his hometown near Boston at Penn State, where school spirit loomed large and "beer flowed like water."

But some of Erik's earliest Penn State memories appear lost in a haze of blackouts after nights of binge drinking that landed him in the hospital so often the university suspended him.

He made a life-changing decision to clean up his act.

In July 2010, he went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in downtown State College. In January, clean and sober, Erik, who asked to be identified by his first name and last initial in the AA tradition, returned to school.

He works with Penn State to ensure that he and other students recovering from addictions stay clean.

Fueled by national statistics showing the number of people ages 18 to 24 seeking substance abuse treatment is increasing faster than any other age group, Penn State and other colleges are establishing programs geared to providing safe havens for recovering students.

Penn State offers space and staff to help students make it past the temptations of college and beyond.

Damon Sims, vice president of student affairs, said Penn State devoted space in Pasquerilla Spiritual Center and a graduate assistant to Lions for Recovery, a campus program for recovering students, and committed faculty members' and counselors' time to the recovery community.

Sims said his long-term vision includes developing curriculum for the students and carving out space in the university's substance-free residence hall. Lions for Recovery will be a central component to the overall university plan because it enables students to express what they want and need, he said.

"If we simply house students who are in recovery together and direct them into 12-step programs ... if we have all the pieces in place, but (we don't) attend to the fact that these are college students who also want to have a good time ... then we will have failed," Sims said.

Other schools have formed recovery communities and courses to educate students about breaking free of addictions:

Texas Tech, considered the model for these programs, offers clean-and-sober student lounges with study areas, university-backed 12-step meetings, and scholarships for recovering students.

The University of Michigan funds a college recovery program and substance-free, on-campus activities.

This summer, about 20 colleges founded the Association for Recovery in Higher Education to support students battling addictions.

Culture of partying

These days, Erik does not drink with his buddies. The co-founder of Lions for Recovery, he organizes outings to sporting events, movies, the bowling center and weekly AA meetings.

"The culture is so much about partying that kids often feel there is no option not to drink," said Erik, a junior advertising major.

"They feel like ... the only way to stay away from (alcohol) is to stay locked up in your room and not be involved in the Penn State campus," he said. "We're trying to give kids the opportunity to be involved, to do fun stuff again while being free of drugs and alcohol."

About 64 percent of full-time college students in 2009 were drinkers, and 44 percent reported binge drinking, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey found illicit drug use by full-time college students increased from about 20 percent in 2008 to 22.7 percent.

The number of people ages 18 to 24 seeking treatment more than doubled from 2000 to 2009, compared with a 9 percent increase in those 25 and older, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Erik began drinking at 17 and had his first serious trouble during a visit to Penn State as a high school senior. He drank too much at a dorm party and ended up in the hospital.

His AA experience motivated him to start Lions for Recovery: "When I came back to school, I was really amped up about the recovery because the program of AA made such a big difference. I wanted to give that to someone else."

Yet it takes more than meetings to keep an addict clean, according to Tom Hedrick, spokesman and founding member of the Washington-based Partnership at Hedrick said a sober living environment helps maintain long-term sobriety.

"It really can be an enormous help ... particularly in that 12 to 24 months when you're really getting your feet on the ground, in terms of your change of living styles," Hedrick said.

How relapses happen

Texas Tech's Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery provides clubhouses, recreational activities, recovery courses, 12-step meetings and academic advising. It offers scholarships of $1,000 to $6,000 to students who stay clean and excel academically, said Kitty Harris, director of the program, which has 80 students.

The center's students have a cumulative grade-point average of about 3.3 and a graduation rate of about 80 percent, both of which are higher than the university average, Harris said. About 6 percent of students drop out of the program or are kicked out for using drugs or alcohol again.

"A lot of these kids sober up and get clean in high school as younger adolescents," Harris said. "Many of them, as they age ... they go, 'You know what? I was that way when I was 16. I'm 22 now. I have more skills. I'm more mature. I have better judgment, and I think I can go back and drinking again and drink moderately.' That's often how relapses happen."

The center receives minimal financial support from the university. It relies on private foundations, personal donations and partnerships with treatment facilities to cover costs and scholarships.

"It's wonderful. I am surrounded by people in recovery," said Austin M., a sophomore at Texas Tech and member of the addiction center. "'Grateful' is the word. It's allowed me to get back into college, and it's allowed me to really have a secure place and a comfortable foundation for my recovery."

Austin, 22, of Alabama started his college career at The University of Alabama, where he joined a fraternity and stumbled academically. After three years of struggling, he ended up at a treatment facility outside Birmingham for alcohol and prescription drug addictions.

He applied to Texas Tech specifically for its recovery community.

Internet message boards are jammed with comments from parents and students looking for schools that offer some support to recovering addicts.

"The difference here is that everyone's in school, everyone's trying to go somewhere in life," Austin said. "(Everyone) is dealing with taking classes, studying for tests, but also going to meetings and having a sponsor."

Sims hopes Penn State becomes a school that recovering students seek out because of its community.

Left to deal with addiction problems alone, many students drop out of college. A recent study shows 20 percent of college dropouts did so because of drug or alcohol addictions.

Colleges with recovery programs:

Texas Tech University

The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Mississippi

Vanderbilt University, Nashville

Georgia Southern University

Kennesaw State University, Ga.

Tulsa Community College

University of Michigan

Southern Methodist University, Dallas

The Pennsylvania State University

Southern Oregon University

Kari Andren can be reached at [email protected] or 724-850-2856.

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