The College of New Jersey launched a collegiate recovery program from scratch by creating a solid community — one student at a time.
When Christopher Freeman was hired as the new Community Recovery Supervisor at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in June 2015 and was charged with starting a collegiate recovery program, he faced a unique challenge. Most students he needed to connect with were on summer vacation. Plus, a college was a new environment for Freeman, whose background was in treatment settings.
“How do I begin?” he wondered.
With much administrative support behind him, Freeman decided to just start coloring outside of the lines and see what happened.
“The benefit of starting on the ground floor is that we could create the best program for our unique student base,” he says. “I began by researching what other schools were doing to collect ideas, but I kept in mind that every school is different. We needed to build a community so that students in recovery could connect with each other, but we would not know what such a community would look like at our school until it was created.”
The initiative to create a collegiate recovery program at TCNJ began in 2014, when the college received a grant from the state of New Jersey, which had made funds available for public institutions to support students in recovery and to stem substance abuse on campus.
The college had three grant-driven components to implement: create recovery housing, provide counseling and support services, and offer a late-night sober activities program as part of a broader effort to reduce substance abuse on campus.
“The biggest challenge was getting the word out,” says Freeman, whose position was created from the grant. “I had to start ramping up something for when students arrived in September, but since it was summer, I sometimes felt like I was speaking to a ghost town.”
He sent out emails alerting the college community to the new initiatives, used the student health questionnaire to inquire if students were in recovery and spoke at first-year student events about the college’s recovery efforts. “We know from studies that 1 percent of all students are in recovery,” he says. “This might not sound very big but when you have a campus of 7,000 like we do, that could mean 70 students in active recovery — not including those who might be interested in a sober life or have fallen out of recovery.
“We needed to cast our net really wide and build momentum,” he continues. “Unfortunately, there’s no one efficient way to get the word out to everybody, so we had to use a lot of avenues.”
As he spoke to students, Freeman collected contact information whenever he encountered an individual in recovery. “It was tricky early on since we did not have any activity or community to plug these students into and we did not want to lose them,” he says.
After nearly a year, toward the beginning of the next summer Freeman had three names of students interested in the collegiate recovery program — enough to start a grassroots effort. The students started meeting with Freeman and steadily, they invited others to join. By the second day of classes, there were six to eight students who were interested in starting a recovery community.
They were on their way.
The Housing Conundrum
Since the grant required a focus on recovery housing, the college was well into its planning stages of implementing sober residential space in April 2015 when Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill mandating that state colleges and universities that have 25 percent of their student body living on campus provide sober-housing options within four years.
TCNJ had designated a stand-alone specialty residence located on campus that would accommodate five students in recovery. Named “Lion’s House” after the school mascot, the building was meant for students who abstained from substances, were committed to recovery and abided by a community contract. It attracted one student for one semester.
“We thought there would be an immediate need for a dedicated sober house,” Freeman says. “We realized it was not a situation of ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The community had to be built first.”
The college decided on a different approach. Starting with the 2016–17 school year, students can choose to live in a substance-free residence hall, whether they are in recovery or not.
“It’s a great idea that helps us increase our momentum,” says Freeman, who notes that parents have called him inquiring about it. “Instead of having a student in recovery approach us and we put him or her in a house maybe by themselves, we instead place the student in a residence hall with peers who are interested in a sober lifestyle even if they are not necessarily in recovery. This also reduces the stigma students might feel in an isolated house.”
A Broader Support System
Since 2015, TCNJ has been providing individual counseling and recovery meetings that are open to college students and SMART Recovery meetings to non-college community members. “Before the grant, the college had scarce resources that could only provide short-term services,” Freeman says. “If they needed longer-term counseling, students had to find a counselor off-campus. Now, we are able to provide continuous counseling for students in recovery throughout their entire college career.”
Sober activities also play a key role in the success of the fledgling program. The school hired an activities coordinator to organize sober events during times in which students are looking for something to do and might otherwise be using substances. According to Freeman, last year more than 6,000 students participated in activities ranging from a life-sized game of “Candyland” to jumbo kickball to a costumed dodge ball game at Halloween.
At almost two years in, Freeman is still in “momentum mode.” Each week, he and the students meet to talk about ways to build their community. He has also found people connected to the university beyond the undergraduate level to be a strong resource. “I connected with graduate students and alumni who are in recovery and started a group, which has allowed us to form a core to plug undergraduates into,” he says. “It helps them understand that they are not alone, that there is this huge world of others in recovery that they are a part of and they have a future.”