That Community Spirit Shines Through
The University of Alabama at Birmingham is rolling out the welcome mat to students in recovery, to the greater recovery community and to allies.
When the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) launched its collegiate recovery community (CRC) in the fall of 2015 with a screening of the documentary The Anonymous People, about 50 students, staff and members of the public showed up. They knew they had tapped into a population that should be acknowledged and addressed.
For a year prior to the kickoff event, Program Manager Luciana Silva had been researching collegiate recovery communities at other schools and bringing together leaders from across the university to serve as an advisory board in preparation of creating a program on campus.
Before the CRC, students attended meetings in the community but longed for something unique to them. “The hospital offered the Addiction Recovery Program, which has a young adult track,” Silva says. “They saw this need. They watched people complete treatment, enroll or re-enroll at UAB, but return for meetings there because we did not offer this service. They were generous partners in getting our CRC started.”
There is a special bond that forms between like-minded individuals seeking a common goal. Nowhere is that stronger than with people in recovery whose goal is to stay clean, sober and healthy.
“Remaining in recovery is key to these students’ academic success, career success and life success after school,” Silva says. “As with any big change in life, people need support. They need to be around other individuals who understand that unique experience, those who have lived with it and know what it means to be healthy. Students want to see themselves reflected in the people around them and be involved in communities where they feel they share meaningful experiences. We aim to make our program for students, by students in recovery.”
Currently, the CRC has about 15 members — half undergraduates and half graduate students, including professional students in the medical and nursing schools — with an average GPA of 3.48. There are about 20 more regular nonmember participants who attend meetings and events and are generally around to support the CRC whenever needed. Silva says she and her staff are always seeking opportunities that allow students to tie their academic excellence with their daily work of maintaining recovery. Students can take advantage of 24-hour access to the Wellness House’s dedicated space and attend professional development workshops. In addition to three weekly recovery meetings, the CRC is planning to provide even more academic support programming this year.
Making Bold, Early Moves
As any CRC director can confirm, community building is the biggest challenge in a fledgling program. Silva and her team tackled this head-on by reaching out to the community at large as well as to their targeted demographic of students. They want people to see that this new initiative is strong and that UAB is a place that provides a warm, welcoming home for people living a sober lifestyle.
Coming out of the gate, they looked to the community to find someone in recovery who could serve as the face of the CRC — someone who was young, vibrant and who has walked their path. They found it in Taylor Milam, now a senior social work major at the university. Milam, who is not a member of the CRC, was hired as program management assistant at the organization’s launch.
As a student peer who has been sober for seven years, Milam brings a unique perspective to promoting the CRC on campus as well as in the community.
“Being a student in recovery makes me relatable,” he says. “It helps students feel comfortable being involved in the program and talking to me. This is important as some of our students are very new to recovery.”
Milam, who brought with him two years of experience working at a men’s sober living facility in Birmingham, sprang into action, working to help develop and implement programs and serving as the face of the CRC by setting up information tables around campus, facilitating meetings and reaching out to recovery groups around the city.
“Birmingham has a strong recovery community,” Milam says. “It is because of this strength that we are successful here on UAB’s campus. Our student population comes from various 12-step groups, Refuge Recovery meditation groups, sober living centers and treatment centers around town. We realized that to be successful we needed to tap into this community, so that’s where we started.
“When I was hired, I knew at least 30 students in recovery personally,” he continues. “It just took me reaching out to them and letting them know that we were here. We plan CRC-related events that are open to the student body and community alike. This includes hiking, whitewater rafting, kayaking and climbing the rock wall at the rec center. Allowing our students to form a unique community on campus while at the same time encouraging them to stay connected to their main source of recovery is crucial.”
Having a dedicated space is key.
“They need a location to come to between classes to study or decompress,” Milam says. “There’s a prayer and meditation room they can access, or they use our group room for meetings. We believe the most important thing we provide is a full range of services for students on campus. These services promote their education and recovery.”
A sober lifestyle-friendly environment is a strong recruitment tool for universities seeking to attract serious students with high GPAs — like those in recovery. Silva and her team work in collaboration with the admissions office to let students — especially those at community colleges — know there is an active CRC on campus.
“We have a presence at every new student and transfer student orientation,” Silva says. “We let students know we are here before they arrive on campus. Prospective students who are considering the school often ask to come to the recovery meeting, and new students are involved before they even start academically. It gives them an immediate feeling that they belong. They know they won’t be lost in a crowd before they arrive on campus, which lowers anxiety and stress.”
The CRC also encourages graduates from other institutions who are considering UAB for graduate school or continuing education to get involved.
“Some have taken on an active role by leading meetings or starting new groups in collaboration with members,” Silva says. “This involvement allows them to see how our CRC is a space for them.”
In winter 2016, the CRC hosted its first UAB Collegiate Recovery Conference, Recovery Unite, which attracted 150 attendees from the UAB and Birmingham communities. The goal was to bring many abstinence-based Birmingham recovery entities together for a day of recovery seminars, workshops, speakers and fellowship. Students produced the conference from conception to execution: They invited clinicians to speak, set the program, made the reservations and coordinated registration.
“It was such a success that we hope to do it every year,” Silva says.
Let’s Have Some Fun
Students in recovery run the risk of feeling isolated from their peers during the off-hours when social events occur. The CRC fills this gap by providing a social outlet that encourages relationships and planning activities that are meaningful and supportive of health and well-ness. Most activities are planned in consultation with the students.
This year, it hosted its second Sober Spring Break, a week of events that provide participants and allies with safe and healthy alternatives for spring break.
“Spring break is a triggering time for most college students in recovery,” Silva says. “We want to give them an opportunity to have fun sober.”
Activities included wall climbing, an equine-assisted wellness workshop and a kayaking trip. Last year, the week culminated in a community cookout, which included people in treatment centers and those in the community who are in recovery.
“It’s important that students who have made a commitment to sobriety forge a connection with the larger recovery community,” Silva says. “It is also a way to give back to the community that has helped them so much.”
This summer, the CRC plans to repeat its Fourth of July cookout.
“It was so much fun for everyone,” Silva says. “We gathered at a spot on campus that has a great view of the fireworks display, played music and served food.”
In the fall, it hosts Sobertober Fest for students, staff, alumni and guests, where participants enjoy a pumpkin carving contest, campfire, costume contest, food, music and prizes.
Birmingham is a hub for Refuge Recovery, a mindfulness meditation recovery program based on Buddhist philosophy.
“A couple of students in the CRC were attending this program off campus and wanted to start a similar meditation group here,” Silva says. “It is 12-step-informed and abstinence-based. The students meet in our dedicated space in the Wellness House every Saturday night for Moonlight Meditation.”
Now, the CRC is setting its sights on building capacity and adding more academic support by pursuing a formal collaboration with the Vulcan Materials Academic Success Center, which provides services such
as tutoring, supplemental instruction, academic advising, success advising and workshops. Other goals include working with the advising office to prioritize students in recovery, collaborating with Career Services to host workshops at the Wellness House and making the student leadership body official.
It also plans on building its alumni community.
“As alumni members grow, the CRC is looking at ways for them to stay engaged in a systematic way, such as inviting them to speak or to serve as mentors,” Silva says. “They are members of our family, and that doesn’t change when they graduate.”