A (Blue) Grass Movement
The University of Kentucky looks to students for input as it launches a collegiate recovery community and Living Learning Program back-to-back.
Prevention Coordinator Kelsey Otten first heard about collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) in 2015 as a graduate student in the Office of Wellness Initiatives for Student Empowerment. Excited by the idea, she approached her director and was pleased to discover that a proposal was already underway for a recovery Living Learning Program scheduled to launch in fall 2017.
“This made the idea for a CRC even more exciting,” Otten says. “It would be a great way to start a recovery initiative and would complement the Living Learning Program when it was launched.”
Buoyed by the mission, Otten hit the road to visit CRCs at other universities, including Texas Tech, Vanderbilt and Ohio State, and began collaborating with a student in recovery she met through a community coalition.
“We started posting recovery meetings in June 2016 and made them open to all young people — even if they were not students,” she says. “It snowballed from there.”
Otten furthered the message by creating social media pages and marketing materials for the CRC and placing posters around campus to educate students about this new resource. Meanwhile, the student she was working with talked to his peers.
“This really was a grassroots effort,” Otten says.
Today, the CRC, which is housed within Campus Recreation and Wellness, has about five undergraduate and graduate students who remain consistently in contact and continue to spread the word. It partners with the admissions and enrollment management office to disseminate materials to incoming students. It also works closely with a network of wellness-related departments on campus, such as the University Health Services’ Prevention and Behavioral Health departments, Counseling Center, Student Financial Wellness Center, Violence Intervention Prevention Center, and Disability Research Center.
“People hear about us in a variety of ways,” Otten says. “For example, last year, when an article on the CRC was published, some professors who are in recovery reached out to us. By doing more education and outreach about recovery, we take huge steps in eliminating the stigma. As we put faces on what recovery actually looks like, we’ll make a lot more progress.”
To become a member of the CRC, an individual must fill out an application; be a student attending the University of Kentucky, Bluegrass Community and Technical College or Transylvania University; have at least six months of sobriety; be actively participating in a 12-step recovery program or an equivalent recovery program; attend weekly recovery meetings; and actively engage in CRC events. Newcomers are welcome to attend recovery meetings and participate in CRC events and activities as long as they are sober and serious about recovery.
Students in recovery face many challenges when they arrive on campus, and Otten hopes that the presence of a CRC can help reduce their anxiety.
“Substance use is often normalized on college campuses,” she says. “Incoming students might have entered recovery before going to college or are trying to return to college after seeking treatment and are nervous about coming back to the same environment they left. It can be very overwhelming. Students already have a lot of stress without the additional concern that comes with maintaining recovery, keeping up grades and the social pressures.
“The CRC provides that safe environment where they can be themselves and be surrounded by like-minded individuals,” Otten continues. “One of the worst things we can do is let them experience isolation because they find it difficult to relate to many other students.”
The recovery community provides that connection. In January 2017, the CRC opened its dedicated space in Blazer Dining Hall — a former classroom that was turned into a lounge with a meditation area with yoga mats and computers that is also used for recovery meetings. It plans on providing activities such as mindfulness meditation and yoga. Across the hall is an office space where Otten can connect with students on a more frequent basis. Having this dedicated location to meet on campus gives students a place where they can go and spend time with people of the same mindset.
“Any additional support is good,” Otten says.
“It allows for more open and honest conversations around recovery on campus.”
Another goal is getting the students involved in the outside community through biweekly meetings.
“College students tend to live in their little campus bubble,” Otten says. “We want them to see how they are connected with a larger community so they can see they have other support systems.”
This summer, the CRC plans to focus on training recovery allies who can serve as ambassadors on campus.
“Our goal is to use allies to help us educate people about what recovery and the CRC are,” she says. “We want the student population to know what recovery looks like on a college campus.
The allies will use positive language when talking about recovery with the hope of getting more conversations around recovery started.
“I am an ally,” she continues. “There is a huge responsibility on my part to advocate for students in recovery. Sometimes it can be overwhelming: Students don’t know who they can talk to. It’s an ally’s responsibility to speak up. Many times, they’ll overhear a conversation that presents an opportunity for education, for example. Allies help students in recovery know they are not alone, that they can rely on other people for support, that they have people advocating on their behalf.”
CATS for Recovery
The Living Learning Program (LLP) — called CATS for Recovery — will share a building with the Agricultural LLP.
“We have a designated area, but the students are not isolated,” Otten says. “We want to let them know that there are people there who want to live with them and support them in their recovery.”
CATS for Recovery will be open to any student living in long-term recovery from substance use disorders, eating disorders and other behavioral addictions, as well as students who are supportive and interested in living a healthy, substance-free lifestyle. Based on a holistic wellness model, the program collaborates with Campus Recreation and Wellness, the CRC and the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine.
“It’s important for us to offer students in recovery an opportunity to live in a safe, substance-free environment and be surrounded by like-minded, supportive peers,” she says. “We will provide a 12-step weekly recovery group, programming, academic seminars and social events.”
Starting small and taking a strategic approach, the LLP will initially offer 26 beds for students of
all grade levels. Ideally, people in the program will be at least six months sober, but Otten says the school will take students on a case-by-case basis. Peer mentors will also live on the floor and serve as liaisons between the students and administrators.
The goal is for students to be proud of their community. To inspire a sense of camaraderie, a social media hashtag was created and pins were designed for students and allies to wear.
“This all circles back to school, community and pride,” Otten says. “It gets people involved in the movement.”
During the fall semester, students in the LLP will be enrolled in a class geared toward recovery. The curriculum will focus on wellness topics as well as other topics such as navigating campus.
Although the CRC and LLP are two distinct programs, they will collaborate. For example, Otten anticipates that LLP students will be connected with the recovery meetings that take place at the CRC.
“Because we want all our students in recovery to form a bond, we will provide social programming that will bring both entities together in the evenings and on weekends,” she says.
Otten sees this outreach to the recovery community as a benefit to the university as well.
“We want to reach out to the high schoolers in recovery who would appreciate a CRC on campus,” she says. “These people are very grateful and have had so many different experiences in their young lives. They are high-caliber students who bring a great diversity to the university: They have high GPAs and graduation rates and want to be engaged in community service and give back. These are the students who universities want to attract and retain. It’s great that the University of Kentucky is so supportive of them.”
Kelsey Otten would like to hear from other CRC program directors. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One Student’s Story
Recovery Campus spoke to a member of the University of Kentucky’s collegiate recovery community about how the CRC makes a difference in her college experience.
Recovery Campus: How is collegiate life different for you now that you are participating in a CRC?
UK: It has been wonderful meeting other students who are also in recovery and are in college. Being able to meet and discuss life as a student and the struggles we face being in college and on campus is comforting. Being able to relate to other young people makes you feel less alone, like you aren’t the only student on campus that doesn’t drink.
RC: What was the most difficult aspect of returning to or attending college as a student in recovery?
UK: It was hard to be around certain friend groups or in certain locations after coming back to college in recovery. I had to be more aware of what situations I was putting myself in.
RC: What do you appreciate most about having the CRC on campus?
UK: The CRC has allowed me to meet other students and form a strong network with the recovery community on campus.
RC: How do your peers in recovery positively influence you and you them?
UK: They are encouraging, they push me to open up and share, and they are there for constant support. Without our weekly meetings, my week wouldn’t be the same. Although all meetings are great, having an organization that is dedicated solely to college students in recovery has been a tremendous help and resource.