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Second Chances: The University's new Collegiate Recovery Program helps students with addictions find sobriety

By Elyana Twiggs, Deputy Statement Editor
Published September 14, 2011

A young woman, newly sober and in recovery, is ready for her new beginning as a graduate student in the University's School of Social Work. After she signed up for a student organization and got her first e-mail from the school, she read the subject line. Her heart dropped. It was an invitation to a pub crawl, which she obviously couldn't attend. She automatically felt alienated from her classmates, without even having met them. This woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a recovering alcoholic.

The University’s new Collegiate Recovery Program is helping students who have to cope with a less talked about struggle when entering the college environment: addiction.

The program started when Mary Jo Desprez, an administrator for the University's Alcohol Policy and Community Initiatives Program for more than 20 years, attended an alcohol and other drugs convention at the beginning of last year. A female student who was a recovering addict approached her about starting a support system for recovering students. After making that connection, the Collegiate Recovery Program was born.

“Staying sober on a college campus would be really hard, especially since most people are pretty new in sobriety, so if you think about it, it would be really different than somebody that has 10 years (of sobriety) and going to a new job,” Desprez said.

“Most people in college are pretty new in recovery and coming into a culture surrounded by parties,” she added.

With money granted by the University Health Service, support from other Michigan programs like Counseling and Psychological Services and private donations, Desprez and Social Work graduate student Jennifer Cervi have been trying to grow a program already in place at 15 other universities.

So far, there are 21 registered students with the University’s Collegiate Recovery Program, and most are undergraduates.

This semester, the CRP has coordinated sober tailgating, social events and mixers that don’t involve alcohol.

The program is not only about relationship building and awareness, but also about accommodating students — especially through housing options and campus education that stresses recovering addicts are a minority that need to be accounted for.

Before visiting Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas to witness its program at work, Desprez did not work with students in recovery as much as she would have liked to.

“There was not a lot of guidance about how to do that," she said. "We were always connecting with local AA meetings, but we always knew that it wasn’t quite enough.”

According to Desprez, the University’s CRP caters specifically to recovering University students.

“To be able to have that peer support and their perception of institutional support is so critical,” Desprez said. “They want to be connected, they want to have fun and they want to feel connected to the Michigan community.”

Desprez said the CRP is about social justice, which makes the University a perfect place for the program to flourish.

“If we have students on this campus that don’t think it’s a safe place to be, that’s a social justice issue,” she said.

“It is important for students who aren’t in recovery to have some awareness that they are in class with students who are in recovery, so that when they think about having a party, that there are things to do other than drinking games.”

After remodeling the Health Promotion and Community Relations section on the fourth floor of the University Health Service building this summer, the program manifested into something tangible and possible.

Now a space exists “so that people ... could just come and hang out and get out of the rat race of hearing all the talk (about alcohol),” Desprez said.

“It’s the same theory behind why fraternities have frat houses — so that like-minded people go to the same place,” Cervi added. “Eventually, what we would someday hope to have ...