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.”