Bridging the Gap
By PATTI ZIELINSKI
An innovative continuum of care program at the University of Alabama that includes students in emerging recovery is poised to be the next wave in how higher education views CRCs.
The young man who sat across from John Lovett in 2010 was a lot like many other University of Alabama students who were sent to the Office of the Dean of Students for low-level infractions, such as minor possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. But there was something about this particular student that gave Lovett — a student conduct investigator who had only graduated from the university a year prior — pause. “He had been sent to see me for marijuana possession, but he didn’t look well,” he says. “My gut told me I should ask more questions.”
The young man broke down crying. “It turned out he had a substantial opiate habit,” Lovett says. “He told me that all he had in the world to his name was there with him in that room: the clothes he was wearing and his backpack. He said he came from a good family and could not live this way any longer. He asked for my help.”
At the time, the university did not have a policy to support students with substance use issues, which left Lovett at an impasse. “It was such a helpless feeling to have someone come to you in great need and not be able to give them relief,” he says.
With the assistance of the director of the Student Health Center, Lovett worked with the student and his parents to transition to a treatment center. With a heavy heart, he knew that this school where he was a proud alumnus would now have to turn its back on the young man because there was no program in place to support him upon his return.
“In the days before collegiate recovery communities became mainstream, people saw students in recovery as a liability — the University of Alabama included. There was no justification to allow alcoholics and drug addicts to return to campus. No one saw the value, and many considered it to be a potential risk management issue,” he says. “I thought how heartbreaking it would be if that were my son who had a substance use issue and who could not attend my alma mater due to lack of institutional support.”
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
Today, the university is on the forefront of helping students seeking a sober life — like this young man, at all stages — have a second chance at higher education by providing programming along a wide continuum of care. It began building the program by enlisting the expertise of Kitty Harris, a renowned authority in collegiate recovery at Texas Tech University, and members of the university’s collegiate recovery community (CRC) to replicate the Texas Tech model with a Crimson Tide spin.
The passion for the CRC project was infectious, and departments across the university soon joined in the effort to build a community where students in recovery could feel at home. The CRC was launched in 2012.
On the surface, things were moving in the right direction: Students were returning to school and joining the CRC. But when program administrators began scrutinizing the numbers, they realized they did not add up. From 2012 to 2017, the university noted more than 1,000 individuals who went through the Mpact Program, which identified students at risk for substance use, but only two of those students converted to the CRC.
They wondered: Where is the disconnect? “Most universities, like Alabama, have an Alcohol and Other Drug Program as an arm of their conduct department, either in the form of classes or counseling. If these schools also have a CRC, they believe they have a continuum of care because they feel they are catching these students who come into the conduct office early, and if they end up getting clean and sober, they can join the CRC,” Lovett explains. “But they are missing a key demographic in this continuum.”
As the CRC staff analyzed the data, they realized the university was supporting students in active addiction on the front end but did not support them again until the one-year-clean-and-sober milestone. “What about those who are at three or six months’ clean and sober?” they wondered. “They do not need any help or support?”
The one-year-sober requirement for CRC membership is the suggested norm for good reason, they acknowledge, as it keeps students in the community who are in long-term recovery safe. In the initial phases of the CRC, the university did offer provisional memberships to the CRC for students who were six or eight months’ clean. However, they discovered that these more high-risk individuals put the community at risk because they had not matured to the same level of recovery.
“We found ourselves in this situation where we wanted to support these students in this interim time period but still keep the safety measures for the CRC in place so as to not put the students with a year or more sobriety in jeopardy,” Lovett says. “So, we created a program in the middle.”
INTRODUCING THE ALABAMA MODEL
In 2017, while the university was investigating the possibilities for these students, it hired Dr. Gerard Love as the executive director of the Office of Collegiate Recovery and Intervention Services. Love — who has been an advocate for people seeking long-term recovery for three decades, working on the clinical side, developing addiction counseling programs, and creating substance use disorder intervention programs and recovery programs on college campuses — set about creating a full continuum of care for students with substance use concerns at every stage. Around the same time, Lovett was named assistant director in the Office of Collegiate Recovery and Intervention Services.
The pieces started to fall into place. Launched in fall 2017, the Alabama Model is what Love calls the “next wave in collegiate recovery” — a unique continuum of care. “We can meet students where they are in their relationship with substances and early recovery — whether it is the first day or well beyond the first year,” he says.
What makes this model unique is that it gives a space to these students who are interested in a life in recovery but have not yet reached the one-year marker to be considered for the CRC. These students become part of FORGE, a provisional membership for students who aspire to become a part of the CRC. During their time in FORGE, staff members help these students explore recovery and develop the relationships and skills necessary to become members entitled to all CRC benefits. Everyone’s path is different: Some students can stay in FORGE during their entire college career while others are voted to the next level of full CRC membership.
Jaime Garza, coordinator of recovery services and a certified addiction counselor, starts students in FORGE to assess their proper place based on their stage of recovery. He meets with students in counseling for substance use issues to explain the benefits of FORGE and the CRC. As a person in long-term recovery himself, Garza knows what a slippery slope recovery can be — and he is available to guide these young people. “The program gives these students the motivation they need to get to the crucial next level,” he says. “It allows for the program of recovery to work its magic through attraction rather than promotion.” Garza holds students accountable, but as long as they are willing to be committed to one of the programs, they will have a home in recovery.
Students who are determined by clinicians as needing the highest level of care are placed in the University Campus Drug Court Program. Housed in the Office of Student Conduct, this program defers suspension due to a drug- or alcohol-related nonviolent offense. It is recognized by the state of Alabama and others around the country as a certified drug court program and allows students both in and out of state to remain enrolled in school while they address both their substance and legal issues through counseling services. The students visit a judge once a week for testing; if they fail, they are removed from the program. “The program is designed to provide second opportunities for students to address their substance use through a clinical approach rather than a punitive one,” Garza says. “This full continuum of care, especially the creation of the FORGE program, has allowed the university to be more inclusive of students exploring recovery. We are proud that no student is turned away from our services.”
Lovett adds: “Students who are identified with a substance use disorder receive counseling intervention services in the beginning. Then, if we see that spark — and we see it a lot — where students see the value in being sober, their grades improving and their relationships with their parents growing stronger, we have an alternative. We don’t have to say, ‘Come back and see us in one year.’”
The university describes this demographic of students as in “emerging recovery” — and decided that this was a vulnerable segment of the population that should be embraced by the CRC in its own special way. Instead of being told to return after a year, these students are welcomed into the CRC as prospective members. To the university community, they are recognized as members of the CRC, but within, they are considered members who are still exploring the emergence of their recovery.
The CRC offers counseling, a dedicated space, free printing and community meals for full members. All members of the CRC, regardless of their length of sobriety prior to joining, must go through this one-year prospective membership before being considered full time. “If a student comes to us and says he or she has three years’ sobriety, that can mean many things,” Lovett explains. “When they go through our 12-month program, they have the same understanding of their sobriety as the existing full-time members and have been vetted, which makes the program more stable. When students become full-time members, they have earned it.”
The CRC is 12-step-based. All members must complete a 12-step program or something similar prior to receiving full-time status. “We individually tailor the experience,” Lovett says. “If 12-step is not something that a student prefers, we offer other ways the student can explore what his or her recovery looks like. You cannot fail out of our program or be rejected. We believe nothing in recovery should be exclusionary.”
Currently, there are 30 CRC members: 15 prospective and 15 full time. There are a few distinctions between the provisional members who are in FORGE and those who are full members of the CRC: Although all members can enjoy the dedicated space in the Student Health Center, which has a kitchen, meditation space, study area with computers, open lounge with a TV, Xbox, snacks and coffee, and a 12-step room for meetings, only full-time members can access this space 24/7 and have their own building entrance that is accessed with a keycard. Full-time members who maintain a certain GPA and the requirements of their individual recovery plan are eligible for scholarships, funded through private donations, to offset the cost of tuition. They also can participate in community meals. This separation provides motivation for FORGE members to advance to the next level, says Lovett.
“The way the building is laid out visually demonstrates our continuum of care: There is one long hallway that starts with intervention services, continues on to rooms dedicated to our prospective members and ends in the CRC community space,” he says. “So, if you stand in the right spot at one end, you can see clear to the other end. Students in the intervention area can hear people laughing and playing Xbox; it gives them hope. These students also can go down and have a cup of coffee with full-time members.”
This separation is a delicate balance that the Alabama Model strikes well. “We didn’t want to exclude these prospective members since we believe that a CRC is an all-inclusive community of individuals with the common goal of exploring and maintaining what recovery means to them, regardless of their stage,” Lovett says. “This allows these emerging members to be part of the community but not jeopardize the full-time members’ recovery.”
The goal is to advance the provisional student members to full status if they are ready and willing. Counselors work with prospective members on their recovery plan, which also can include goals such as academics and relationship building. To further weave prospective members into the CRC, counselors pair them with a full-time member who serves as a mentor. They can also preregister for classes with their peers in recovery, which helps them feel part of the community.
“Our dedicated staff trained specifically in addiction counseling gives us the ability to take care of the whole student in-house,” says Hilary Groover, program manager. “We feel this new model makes it attractive to both sides of the spectrum and allows students who have not met the criteria for addiction to see the beauty of recovery and help eliminate the stigma attached to addiction.”
Groover notes one of the strengths of the program is the mentor/mentee relationship between full members and students in FORGE. “They do not serve as a sponsor in their recovery program but rather a guide for navigating both recovery and academia simultaneously,” she says. “FORGE members take suggestions from their peers as they pursue a degree in higher education and eventually serve as CRC members and mentors themselves. They are not required to mentor or become members, but most often they adopt the roles as means of giving back what they were freely given.”
The team stresses that the Alabama Model is not a one-size-fits-all approach but one that is very specific to its student population. “We hope to continue to evolve and grow with our community as it changes. We feel that having the ability to serve the entire campus through our counseling and intervention services allows us to promote recovery on a larger scale,” says Groover. “Many students who could have benefitted from a recovery community may never have had the chance when the CRC was never visible and available to them.”
As the CRC moves forward into another year of this new program, Love’s team is watching how the university is reaping the benefits as well. “Having this interim program makes so much sense from the university’s point of view,” Love says. “It helps with the alcohol and other drug cases, is good for recruiting, and keeps tuition dollars on campus. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do. Our CRC students are working hard — together — to become our next generation of leaders.”
Spreading the Word about Recovery
Dr. Gerard Love and his team at the Office of Collegiate Recovery and Intervention Services are proactive about spreading the message of a life in recovery on campus. The CRC is mentioned at new student orientation; parent orientation; on Alpha Point, the pre-campus online education program that emphasizes community, relationships, diversity, mental health, wellness and balance; and on the website. Most of the students are referred by either intervention services or by the CRC members, but there also are staff members who are designated to recruit students who have both left school and gone to treatment or are coming out of treatment and want to attend college for the first time or continue on to get their graduate degrees. They also get referrals by other campus resource centers such as the Student Health Center, Counseling Center, and Women Gender and Resource Center.
To reinforce the five domains of Alpha Point, Love developed and implemented a new freshman seminar “Self-Discovery and Resilience.” Plans are underway to expand the course offering to more incoming freshmen. “If an incoming student can make informed decisions regarding drug and alcohol use, it makes it easier to have a smooth transition in other areas,” Love explains.
Love also assisted with the Xanax Speakers Series that was presented by leaders of Greek life to all incoming fraternity and sorority members under the leadership of Dr. Toti Perez, associate vice president of Student Health and Wellbeing. “This peer-to-peer program is a powerful way to address the dangers of prescription drug misuse,” Love says.
Recovery ally training also is in production and will be an online offering for all university faculty and staff to increase knowledge about substance use disorders and recovery. The goal is to reduce stigma and create a safe, supportive, welcoming environment for all students in recovery.
The university pioneered its peer education program in the fall of 2018. Since then, the program has been presented to more than 300 students in the classroom. In the fall of 2019, it will become part of the College of Nursing’s curriculum. “Data suggests that students not only gained a better understanding of addiction and recovery, but they also were informed in a meaningful way, which could impact their decision making surrounding drugs and alcohol in the future,” says Hillary Groover, program manager. “We are growing this program, training more peer educators in the summer, with the hope to reach more students and alter the perception of social normative drinking patterns.”