Advising Students in Recovery from an Addiction
Kennesaw State University
Today’s college culture includes a diverse group of students who bring with them unique talents and needs. Whether a student is nontraditional, international, or has a disability, there are resources on our campuses ready to provide assistance and support. Academic advisors routinely direct students to such resources as needed, yet I believe one student group may go largely overlooked: students in recovery from addiction.
Students in recovery are more likely to seek needed support when they feel welcomed by college personnel and peers.
Students in recovery need resources and opportunities on their campus to assist their academic success. When we create a place where students in recovery feel safe, these students feel welcomed in our offices and are more open to any academic assistance.
Addiction can best be understood as a disease that progressively makes a life unmanageable. The students in recovery who I advise have found a new life in sobriety. Their addictions include drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and gambling. When these students come to see me, they bring with them their skills and abilities as well as any barriers to academic success. My conversations with these students bring deeper understanding of their academic strengths and weaknesses and help us discuss ways in which they can succeed. I work in a collegiate department structured to provide academic assistance and peer support to students in recovery. Because of the support I provide, I am a trusted source to many of these students. I believe other academic advisors can become trusted campus sources for students in recovery as well.
There are some things advisors must do if we are to be prepared to make the most of an opportunity to assist students in recovery. These actions include:
Prepare. When we have a basic understanding of addiction and knowledge of our campus resources, we are better prepared to assist students in recovery. Many stigmas have been associated with addiction (e.g., belief that it is moral failure or something to be outgrown after graduation). Students in recovery may have experienced effects of these misconceptions first hand or felt judged by others and themselves. The college campus can be an intimidating place. These students may feel alone in their recovery, have financial needs after funds have been exhausted on treatment, or have anxiety about school since their drug of choice helped them focus on assignments. Advisors who are understanding and know resources show students that they care about their needs.
Listen. It is important that we listen if we are to have a personal understanding of the students we advise. When students disclose that they are in recovery, we both have a certain advantage. Advisors can connect these students to the campus support system. Connecting to campus resources and receiving support improves the likelihood that these students will not only remain in school but succeed.
Encourage. Even when students have struggled in school, we should find out where they have succeeded and encourage them to continue to grow. A history of substance abuse may be reflected in previous grades, but this does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of academic success. Find out what classes they enjoy, what they like to do, and what they are good at doing. When advisors point out students’ strengths we show them that we see their potential to succeed and not just any weaknesses. Building confidence helps students overcome the negative, self-deprecating thoughts (e.g., “I am a failure”) many students in recovery make.
Reflect. Advisors can help students learn how to balance their lives by working with them on time management. Because addiction interrupts personal development, individuals in recovery have a tendency toward impulsivity and poor boundaries. They may take on too much only to become discouraged and overwhelmed. Poor time and relationship management can lead to over-scheduling with friends and underestimating how much time it takes to complete homework. It is helpful if students can visualize how time is spent. Providing a calendar to mark down time spent on various tasks is a powerful tool to illustrate time management issues and teach balance, a valuable lesson they can use in college and beyond.
Teach. Help students learn to recognize the stumbling blocks to their success. Sometimes students in recovery give up before they even try; their lack of confidence and their impulsivity can lead them to this point. Students cannot learn how to correct problems without being aware of his issues. For example, a student who fails a class may tell his advisor that he stopped going to class a few weeks into the semester after he perceived the teacher grading him unfairly. In this situation, we can point out the student’s incorrect assumption and how it led to a behavior which eventually led to his failing the course. Encourage the student to be aware of his thoughts and behaviors and to accept the consequences of his actions so he can be better prepared next time. Small teaching moments such as this one can generate large changes in growth, development, and outcomes.
Refer. This may be the most important step advisors can take with students in recovery. When students have issues beyond our professional areas of expertise we must refer students to the resources provided by our campuses and local communities. We are not expected to be students’ counselors, sponsors, or friends. When we know local resources and refer students for recovery meetings (e.g.,Alcoholics Anonymous), peer support, and counseling we help these students.