Cheating the New Normal

NAU 2 Credit Emily Swaine

Photo courtesy of Emily Swaine


Northern Arizona University makes students in recovery feel at home by making sober activities cool.

If you build it, they will come. That’s the philosophy of Northern Arizona University (NAU) counselor Hannah Nunez and health promotion manager Melissa Griffin.

As they worked with students in their roles at the Flagstaff campus, they realized that many of them preferred to engage in activities that did not involve alcohol. They also were seeing higher rates of incoming freshmen who had gone through treatment programs for substance use. This got them thinking: What if the university started ramping up opportunities for students to pursue sober activities, including launching an official campus recovery program?

They began the process in summer 2015, building networks and obtaining funding through the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, and Transforming Youth Recovery to offer events and hire staff to support a collegiate recovery program.

Their dream became a reality in January with the kick-off of Live Free, a program that promotes a sober lifestyle and is managed under the office of Health Promotion and Counseling Services.

“We decided to call it ‘Live Free’ to reflect that this program is inclusive to a wide variety of students — from those who are seeking alcohol-free events to those who are in recovery,” says Nunez. “The ultimate goal is to reduce the stigma for students with substance use disorders who are choosing not to drink.”

To be truly successful, Nunez and Griffin realized they had to change the campus climate. “It’s all about social norming,” says Nunez, who reviewed data culled from the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment surveys to get a pulse on student involvement with substances. “We want to send the message that while many students do drink, most either drink responsibly — four to five drinks a week — or not at all. Since we know we have this audience, it is important to gear activities to support students with those interests. It also sends the message that most students would like these opportunities and want to make changes in their use.”

Northern Arizona University students enjoy a trip to Sedona for a day of meditation an guided yoga among the town's iconic red rocks during the kick-off event for the Live Free program. Photo courtesy of Emily Swaine

Northern Arizona University students enjoy a trip to Sedona for a day of meditation an guided yoga among the town’s iconic red rocks during the kick-off event for the Live Free program. Photo courtesy of Emily Swaine

The program kicked off in grand style with an ambitious Live Free Weekend. Students were invited to take the “Live Free” pledge to stay sober all weekend. Then, for the next three days, they joined in a host of fun, alcohol-free activities: an evening at a climbing wall, a challenge course, a pancake breakfast, a campfire with s’mores, and a sober social hour. Students also attended a day-long trip to nearby Sedona, where they participated in guided yoga and meditation among the town’s iconic red rocks. About 50 students joined the fun throughout the weekend. “Most were there for the sober activities, with a few students who were in recovery,” says Nunez. “It was a great way to start building a community of like-minded individuals.”

Since then, Nunez and Griffin have scheduled regular activities targeted to students in recovery. The events are small, like a poker night or video game night, every Wednesday in a meeting space at the field house. Students also have gone bowling and enjoyed a spa day with manicures and facials. “We want to create a safe space for people in recovery to feel comfortable, where they can hang out with other students who want that lifestyle,” says Nunez, who reports that a core group of about four students attend every event and meeting.

Creating supportive peer groups is key. Nunez has discovered in her counseling sessions with students in recovery that the mentality of their friends is the No. 1 challenge they face in their attempt to stay sober. “Their friends will say, ‘Come on, why can’t you have just one drink?’ They don’t understand the magnitude, the impact, that one drink can have on a person in recovery,” she says. “This is why we are reaching out to friends, family, and significant others. These are people who want to support their peers, but they need to understand the kind of support that is needed.”

The Live Free team plans to offer more alcohol-free events on weekends and late at night to show students the benefits of lifestyles with moderate to no alcohol use. Take, for example, “Flannels and Flapjacks,” an event hosted by Fraternity and Sorority Life during this past year’s Homecoming weekend. Alcohol traditionally played a role in many homecoming events that were not affiliated with the university and held off-campus but which students attended. “The local bars sponsor ‘Tequila Sunrise,’ which lends to a perceived norm that people go out and drink,” says Griffin, who decided to plan an alternative, sober event. “We wanted to set a new norm. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a new tradition of students waking up early and eating pancakes before going out to the home-coming parade?’”

Students resoundingly agreed: More than 700 people came out for the event.

The vibe of the parade changed this past year as well. “The parade historically was held downtown, near the bars, which gave a conflicting message,” says Nunez. “Last year, it was moved onto the campus, which brings in the new norm of ‘sober equals fun.’”

To promote events, Nunez and Griffin post flyers around campus and broadcast on social media through the Live Free Instagram and Facebook accounts. In addition, they hired a graduate student who makes presentations on the initiative in classes and reaches out to student organizations to educate them on Live Free and its mission.

“Many student organizations host sober events, and Live Free helps us all come together and communicate our shared mission in a broader way,” says Nunez. “It’s important that students in recovery feel that they belong, that they have a voice here on campus. They need to know that there’s a whole community that also enjoys a sober lifestyle.”

To do this, she says, they must tackle the stigma and ignorance that surround people in recovery — both with those they encounter as well as within themselves. “The biggest misconception is that of willpower,” says Nunez. “People say, ‘If they just tried hard enough, they could be sober.’ It’s most detrimental when students in recovery say that about themselves, because they enter a cycle of beating themselves up.”

Little changes can go a long way. “For example, simply removing the term ‘addict’ from conversation and educating people who could be allies would be huge,” she says.

Creating an educated support system is important on a university campus as well as on the national stage. NAU is starting at the grassroots level by educating friends, family, and the community about substance use disorders, how they develop, and how best to support those in recovery.

The Staff from left to right: John Tomazin, Emily Swaine, Hannah Nunez, and Melissa Griffin.

The Staff from left to right: John Tomazin, Emily Swaine, Hannah Nunez, and Melissa Griffin.

This summer, Nunez and Griffin will launch an outreach to parents at orientation so they can understand the support that is available to their children at the university. “When students who are in recovery leave for college, their parents’ biggest concern is whether the campus environment will be supportive, since the perception is that college students drink. Their child is on a good track, and they don’t want that derailed or the student to feel like an outsider,” Nunez says. “We want to shed light to the reality here: There are many students who prefer to have sober fun on the weekends and get all their homework done during the week. We show them that NAU is a safe campus for a person transitioning into university life.”

Before Live Free, Nunez says there was no formal program for students in recovery. Students could seek the assistance of counseling services or receive referrals to centers in the community that held 12-Step oriented meetings geared toward college students. “They were close to campus, but not on campus, which would have been more ideal,” she says.

This spring, she launched a “Solutions and Strategies” group, which will be held every semester for students in recovery. “This gives them a forum to find out what has worked and what hasn’t with their peers,” she says. “It’s a great place to share ideas.”

Nunez knows that students in recovery are desirable for universities. Data nationwide shows that they have higher GPAs and graduation rates and tend to be more resilient than their peers. “It all goes hand-in-hand when you think about it: The resiliency that a person in recovery must have to get through the process and maintain sobriety would logically transfer over to academic abilities and job performance,” she says. “Many students who have a substance use disorder can be very high-achieving despite the fact that their disorder is intensifying. It takes a lot of strength to maintain that level. Then, when these students enter recovery and eliminate the substance use, they start to really excel.”

Written by Patti Zielinski

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