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There are many reasons why a student might choose a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle. For students in recovery from substance use, that decision is an important one – sobriety is often a big part of being able to maintain health and wellbeing. This can be challenging at times as students face the stress of academic life and exposure to alcohol or other drugs in day-to-day life. How can students in recovery find support for having an awesome and fulfilling college experience while staying sober?

Students are joining recovery programs on campusClose up of hands

Increasingly, students who are “in recovery”—working towards or maintaining sobriety—are finding the solution in collegiate recovery programs on campus, like the CU Collegiate Recovery Center (CUCRC). These programs take different forms across the country, though often have common elements. The CUCRC here at CU Boulder offers a sober campus housing option, a dedicated student lounge and resource center, sober social events, peer support meetings, recovery coaching, and other programs tailored to support recovery.

“The CUCRC is a big part of my sobriety – a place on campus I can go to meet up with friends, do homework, talk with someone, or just hang out. Whether I want to share about my accomplishments, or if I’m struggling, this is a place that I can come for support to no matter what kind of feelings I’m having.”
–Undergraduate communications student in recovery at the University of Colorado Boulder

More than 170 university campuses now offer some level of recovery programming, according to Transforming Youth Recovery, a nonprofit that provides schools with funding and other resources for this purpose. The organization has a pilot project underway to expand capacity for recovery services at 100 community colleges as well. The Association for Recovery in Higher Education also helps to support these programs. Their website includes a list of established collegiate recovery programs and regional representatives to help connect individuals with recovery supports available on campuses across the country.

“People are starting to know there is recovery support on college campuses and are looking around for it,” says John Ruyak, an alcohol, drug, and recovery specialist at Oregon State University. In a 2016 study involving nearly 500 students at 29 campus recovery programs, one in three said they would not be in college were it not for that program (Journal of American College Health).

Shifting medical and societal attitudes toward addiction appear to be helping. “There’s a trend to recognize dependency/addiction as a chronic condition, like diabetes or Crohn’s disease,” says Dr. Davis Smith, a staff physician at the University of Connecticut Student Health Center, and medical director of Student Health 101. “Like those physical conditions, substance dependency behaves differently in different individuals, is not a marker of physical or spiritual weakness, and requires ongoing attention/treatment to manage it.”

This increasingly empathic understanding of drug dependency makes it easier for people to seek the resources that could help them. “Students have changed enough that they are not so worried about anonymity as they are about finding the support,” says Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, former senior director of BACCHUS initiatives and training at NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), a leader in peer-education initiatives addressing alcohol use at US colleges.

“These students have worked hard to establish and maintain recovery while also going to college. They deserve all the support we can give them.” Says CUCRC Program Manager Sam Randall.

It also helps that students in recovery are not the only ones who are avoiding alcohol and drugs. “The data on student alcohol and other drug use makes it clear that while many students do use at some level, more and more are abstaining for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Beth DeRicco, director of higher education outreach for Caron Treatment Centers, who has extensive experience developing policies and programs that address dangerous drinking and drug use on campuses and in our broader communities. Among more than 29,000 US students who responded to a national, anonymous survey, 20 percent reported that they had never drunk alcohol, and 16 percent said they had consumed alcohol but not in the past 30 days (National College Health Assessment, spring 2016).

Campus recovery programs help students succeed and graduateTeacher and student at computer

Early research suggests that collegiate recovery programs can also help students excel academically. A 2014 study involving 29 collegiate recovery communities found that their students had higher GPAs and graduation rates than the general student populations at the same colleges (Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions).

That success reflects the determination of these students to move forward, says Joan Masters, senior coordinator at Partners in Prevention, a consortium addressing substance abuse on Missouri campuses. “Students in recovery take every choice seriously and day-by-day. Going back into higher education is a commitment, their second chance.” The relapse rates of students in these programs appears to be well below those of adults accessing community-based recovery services, according to the same 2014 study.

Peer support is key to recovery

Recovery supports work better when they are designed to meet the needs associated with specific life stages and environments, research shows (SAMHSA, 2009). “For most students in recovery, collegiate recovery programs provide the social support and peer network critical to maintaining recovery,” says Dr. DeRicco.

“This is a game changer for me. I would never have made it this far without the other students I met at the CUCRC. I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough support, but I’ve been able to make a ton of friends here who like to have fun too – we just do it without the drugs and alcohol now.”
–Fourth year international studies major at the University of Colorado Boulder

What does campus recovery programming look like?Group of happy students

Collegiate recovery communities vary widely, both in the types of services available and in what they require of the students who access them. “There are many models of different types,” says Masters. “In Missouri, we allow each college to pick what works for them while maintaining fidelity to various tenets of recovery.”

At CU Boulder, the Collegiate Recovery Center offers the following:

  • Support meetings on campus which often emphasize peer support. These can take various formats, such as the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, or an open discussion format focused on the student experience, called Recovery Talks. Information about other types of meetings available in the local community such as SMART Recovery or LifeRing are also available (see Find out more today).
  • Sober campus housing – where students who are part of the CUCRC can live together and share their commitment to living a sober lifestyle
  • Academic support, such as referrals for tutoring or advising, and advocating for student’s needs with other campus departments
  • Individual coaching to discuss recovery-related issues, such as developing coping skills and recovery protective strategies.
  • Sober community activities and social events, like football tailgates and camping trips
  • Dedicated staff with expertise in recovery
  • Financial support, such as scholarships, work study and leadership grant opportunities

Some collegiate recovery programs may specify a particular recovery approach while others allow students to choose what works for them. At CU Boulder, students are encouraged to explore different recovery paths and options and will have support all along the way, whatever it looks like.

“Students in our program range in age from 18 to 40, including those who are brand new to sobriety and others who have over 10 years of continuous sobriety and a solid foundation in recovery.” says CUCRC Director Danny Conroy.

The campus recovery population may include:

  • Students who entered recovery while still in high school; some take a gap year before going to college
  • Students who took time out of college in order to access alcohol and/or drug treatment, and returned to college once their recovery was on track
  • Students who did not go to college after graduating from high school, but have returned to education in their 30s, 40s, or 50s and are also in recovery
  • Students who have made a decision to get sober while in college and often use a range of support to do so, including becoming part of a collegiate recovery program.

Many recovery communities are open to others, including:

  • Students who are not in recovery but are sober and/or don’t use drugs; e.g., as a lifestyle choice, because of their religious beliefs or a family history of addiction
  • Students who are taking a break from drinking or substance use as a lifestyle choice or who are considering getting sober
  • Students who are not sober but are allies to their sober peers

Any student is welcome to come by the CUCRC in UMC room 102 (to the left of the bowling alley) to check it out or to attend a free support meeting at any time. You can connect with other students there who can relate, learn more about the meetings and social events, talk with a professional staff member, find additional support resources on and off campus, and more.

You can also contact the CUCRC staff directly to schedule an appointment to discuss options for support. Email [email protected] or call 303-492-9642

The CUCRC is a safe, confidential place where you can simply start the conversation about drug and alcohol use, or other addictive behaviors -- and there’s something for everyone. Whether you are personally interested in recovery, looking out for a friend, or just seeking to learn more, the community is welcoming and open.

If you are already in recovery or living a sober lifestyle and want to get more involved with the community, you can apply to become a member. CUCRC members have made a commitment to maintaining abstinence from all drugs and alcohol, and enjoy being part of a recovery-focused community. Members are provided with additional benefits and support, including being eligible to live in the CUCRC sober campus housing.

To become a CUCRC Member, staff may consider:

  • Your mental health and treatment history
  • Your duration of abstinence/sobriety
  • Your academic status

At the CUCRC, members are expected to:

  • Attend at least one meeting a week in the CUCRC
  • Actively participate in practices or a program of your choice that supports recovery
  • Sign an abstinence agreement and uphold the community values and guidelines
  • Be willing to support others in their recovery and be of service to the community
  • Engage in additional recovery support services as needed (ie: professional therapy, drug/alcohol monitoring, etc.)

It’s not always easy to know if alcohol and/or drug use has become problematic. If alcohol and/or drugs are negatively affecting your life, or you’re having trouble moderating your use, it’s important to seek help.

Six percent of the US student population meets the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependency, according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (2002). For some students, risk-taking is a developmental stage that they outgrow. Others may be self-medicating in response to an other issues that could be addressed in healthier ways.

These questions can help you figure out if your drinking or drug use is problematic:

  • When you start drinking and/or using, are you able to stop before you start to experience negative consequences?
  • Are you able to set rules for your drinking or use and comply with them? For example: drinking an amount that you decided felt manageable, and not drinking more than that, or using only during down times, when it won’t interfere with other obligations 
  • Is your drinking or drug use having a negative impact on your life? For example: declining grades; friends losing patience with you; legal or disciplinary consequences; spending more money than you can afford on alcohol or drugs; life starting to feel unmanageable.

11 criteria that indicate problematic use (VeryWell.com)

Support and treatment for recovering from alcohol and/or drug use can take a variety of forms

For many students, a decision to get help can be brought about by realizing they are not using alcohol or drugs in a healthy way, and deciding to make some changes in their life, which leads to greater health and balance. For those who find it difficult to stop drinking or using, some form professional treatment is often helpful, though this can take many forms.

“Depending on the level of care needed, a young person may or may not need to or want to take a medical leave from campus,” says Dr. DeRicco. She outlines these treatment options:

  • Depending on the campus location, off-campus services in conjunction with on-campus peer support may be sufficient.  When it is clinically appropriate, combining academics with treatment, and/or having academic goals integrated with a treatment plan, can provide important motivation for success.
  • For others, inpatient, intensive outpatient, or residential treatment may be indicated and may require time out from academic life. 
  • Most collegiate recovery program or collegiate recovery communities help to support students before or after treatment. A few campuses with collegiate recovery programs (e.g., Augsburg College, Minnesota, and Texas Tech University) are closely associated with therapeutic treatment communities nearby as well.

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Article sources

Samantha Randall, program manager, University of Colorado Collegiate Recovery Center; Mountain Region Representative, Association of Recovery in Higher Education

Daniel Conroy, program director,  University of Colorado Collegiate Recovery Center;

Beth DeRicco, PhD, director, higher education outreach, Caron Treatment Centers, Pennsylvania.

Joan Masters, MEd, senior coordinator, Partners in Prevention, University of Missouri Wellness Resource Center; regional consultant, The BACCHUS Network, NASPA.

Sarah Nerad, MPA; program manager, Collegiate Recovery Community;director of recovery, Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery, Office of Student Life, Ohio State University.

Ann Quinn-Zobeck, PhD, former senior director of initiatives and training, The BACCHUS Network, NASPA.

John Ruyak, MPH, alcohol, drug, and recovery specialist, Oregon State University.

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