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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 ... a space on campus, and this is the beginnings of it.”

Cervi’s role in spearheading the program required extensive research, including calling the 15 universities that have existing programs and selecting components that the University might use for its own program.

Cervi also meets with students who are in early recovery, once per week, to see what they need in order to survive in the college atmosphere.

“Some come with already established recovery habits, but they are really generous and are willing to mentor students that are in recovery,” Cervi said. “When you have a graduate student who is five years sober and when you have an 18 year old that is one year sober, and to see proof that they can do it — that is awesome.”

“The services have to be more individualized. There is no cookie cutter approach to making sure we are serving students to what they need,” Cervi added.

Cervi succeeded in making sure University Housing was on board with special accommodations for students in recovery, including special housing for those who are trying to remain sober. In the University’s housing application, there is now a separate housing option for students in recovery. This fall, four students took advantage of that option and live in a place that provides recovery resources.

The challenges of recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held in the Michigan Union every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. These meetings have been a helpful resource for students in the program, giving students chips to signify milestones in sobriety and helping them through the 12-step program. According to Cervi, the CRP has even succeeded in negotiating with the University to accept recovering students with criminal records.

Desprez has hopes of obtaining a bigger space, more financial support, a separate program coordinator and possibly scholarships for recovering students in the future. She also thinks that the program coordinator should be in recovery as well. However, Because of her position in the Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention program and her dedication to the creation of the CRP, she became the program's head.

“Sometimes a recovering student needs to look across the table at a recovering addict and think ‘You get me,’ ” Desprez said.

Desprez said the program also needs to learn to address the ever-present possibility of relapse.

“One of the facts of recovery is that there can be relapse, and it’s just part of it,” Desprez said. “You don’t just go, ‘Oh well, sorry.’ You have to figure out: Where does active treatment end and recovery support begin? We are still figuring that out.”

Relapse is something that Desprez and Cervi think can be curbed by a program like the CRP, due to the sense of community on a college campus.

“The nature of the disease is that relapse can happen anywhere. It’s about creating a community of support.”

However, according to Cervi, students are as vulnerable as anyone else dealing with a history of addiction.

Rory Crook is approaching his ninth year of sobriety. According to Crook, being in recovery is “thoroughly embedded” in his identity. Crook attended the University for two years as an undergraduate and returned this year as a graduate student in the School of Public Health.

Crook said his experience at the University hasn’t been that of the average student, especially in the undergraduate college environment.

“I could have never went to college not sober,” Crook said.

“I’ve never had an issue with drinking here. The only thing that makes it difficult in meeting or socializing with people is that I don’t go to parties that often, which is fine, but it means I don’t have the average experience that a student has here,” Crook said. “Usually that means I have to work harder.”

Crook said he finds it difficult to connect with people when graduate students normally meet in places like bars.

“I really don’t know how to function well in an environment where the only place students tend to socialize is in a bar,” Crook said. “What kind of doors does that close? I am hoping this organization will raise the profile of people who also want to be social on another level.”

Crook said the CRP saves students from being persecuted for having a substance abuse problem. With the CRP, he hopes it'll be less taboo to talk about recovery and addiction.

“We aren’t talking about AA here. We are talking about human capital. I agree with this idea of reducing the stigma,” Crook said. “It’s something that is perceived as a weakness, but it’s not. It’s a disease.”

Crook said he sympathizes for students who are just entering school and are new at recovery.

“There’s a lot of pressure in the U of M environment to drink, and young people who are just beginning to think for themselves are not prepared to go against the grain here.”

The program, he said, has helped him give back to those who need community support as they recover from addiction. Crook believes that through his participation in the CRP, he can help other students stay sober. And he feels the CRP community is paramount to his recovery.

“I wouldn’t leave my community to go to school somewhere else,” Crook said. “That’s just how important recovery is.”

Amber Smith, a fourth-year graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in biochemistry and CRP member, has been sober for 10 months.

“What was really important to my recovery was finding people who were in the same situation as I am,” Smith said. “On my own, I wasn’t able to find people who were like me, so being a part of this program allowed me to meet students that were in recovery too.”

Smith learned about the CRP through her weekly AA meetings and found the University to be more than helpful with accommodating her situation, especially after a struggle with addiction that included hospitalization and a DUI.

“Michigan is amazing when it comes to things like this,” Smith said. “They were so helpful and understanding about the whole situation, and it just made it so much easier. I was so happy that the start of my recovery happened here."

Smith added that she now can’t imagine a life without sobriety.

“It’s powerful to think that I have such a better life now, without drugs and alcohol than what I did,” she said.

Smith said she never had reservations about seeking help while attending the University and wants to make her peers aware that students are actually dealing with addiction on a daily basis.

“I feel like there is such a stigma put on recovery, and if me talking about my experience helps someone else, then it’s worth it for me,” Smith said.

She mentioned that because of the college atmosphere, some people make excuses for alcohol and drug abuse.

“It’s so easy to hide substance abuse issues in college,” Smith said. “Being young, it’s in your face everywhere, and if more people realize how many people have substance abuse issues, drinking won’t be such a big deal or won’t be offered at everything.”

Rebirth and the new CRP

With the help of Dr. Kitty Harris at Texas Tech, the home of a 25-year-old Collegiate Recovery Program, Desprez and Cervi were able to form a program that could meet the needs of the University’s diverse student population.

Harris has headed the center for 10 years of its 25-year existence. The program she runs has a 94-percent success rate, which means the students have remained sober. Eighty students are currently participating in the recovery program.

According to Harris, the program at Texas Tech has four important facets to recovery: health, community support, academic aid and civility.

The federal dissemination grant awarded to her program in Jan. 2007 to replicate nationwide, has allowed her and her colleagues to train those involved with the University’s CRP. Last January, Harris came to the University to work with Desprez and E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs, to jumpstart the program.

Harris said in her experience of replicating Texas Tech’s program at 15 other schools, she has never met someone with as much dedication and persistence as Desprez.

“The program is going to be a great opportunity for the University to really set the stage for doing some work with students,” Harris said. “I couldn’t be any more committed to this program being a real positive thing for the University and the students involved.”

Harris believes the program has been a success because of the feeling of belonging individuals develop in groups that offer social support.

“With drug use, you think a lot about peer pressure, and people being pressured to use drugs, and recovery — especially for the college population — kind of turns that around so that you are pressured to be clean and sober to remain part of that community. That’s key.”

To Harris, a program like the CRP helps students become who they were meant to be.

“These programs are opportunities to go forward with your hopes, dreams and a future that really matters,” Harris said. “The most exciting thing about a Collegiate Recovery Program is that it allows you to flourish. It is a great chance at being the kind of person you were supposed to be before the drugs and alcohol got a hold of you.”

Recovery in college allows students to start again in a new place with a new potential, Desprez said.

“Who do you know that doesn’t believe in a second chance? Collegiate recovery support is most fundamentally a second chance.”


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