Finding Sobriety at Rutgers

A new group graduates from the university’s Recovery Housing Program as Gov. Christie seeks to replicate model statewide

By Lisa Intrabartola, Rutgers Today

Frank P.’s rock bottom came during his first year at Rutgers.

He was drunk, freezing and face down in a ditch – rooting around for a bottle of liquor – when concerned friends found him and turned him over to campus police.

“I remember seeing the red and blue lights of the cop car coming to get me, and I had a white light moment,” said the 21-year-old Kensington, Md., resident.  “I can keep doing what I’m doing and keep being this person whose friends don’t feel comfortable with him, or I could actually get help for what’s going on and see what happens.”

Chances are Frank will share that story tomorrow when he and nine of his Recovery Housing roommates take the stage at an intimate commencement ceremony celebrating their graduation and their sobriety.

“At one time in the lives of these 10 amazing graduates, their families were not sure if they would live or die, let alone live to go to college,” said Lisa Laitman, director of the university’s Alcohol and Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) since 1983.  “So not only have they lived and learned how to sustain recovery, but they have earned a college degree at Rutgers in this process.”

Founded in 1988, (ADAP) Rutgers Recovery Housing program was the first on-campus college housing in the country for students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. It started in a section of a dorm, moved to apartments and now occupies a building with capacity for 39 at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. ADAP also operates two apartments in Newark that can house eight students.

Frank and his fellow graduates will take turns at the microphone during Recovery Housing’s annual graduation dinner in the Livingston Student Center, where they speak to alumni and undergraduates of the program as well as family and friends. They will reflect on the ways their addiction laid them low and express gratitude to their supporters and Recovery Housing for being integral to their success.

“I was incredibly lucky. I didn’t know about Recovery Housing when I applied to Rutgers. I didn’t know I’d need it,” said Frank, who is graduating with degrees in English and psychology. “It turned out to be exactly the place I needed to be. It is a big supportive community full of people I could relate to in ways I couldn’t relate to anybody before in an honest open environment.”

It’s the exact environment Gov. Chris Christie plans to replicate at all New Jersey colleges. As part of his anti-addiction crusade, Christie signed a new law last year that requires recovery housing be offered by 2018 at all New Jersey public colleges where more than 25 percent of students live on campus. So far, $1.5 million has been earmarked to expand the recovery dorm program statewide.

“The ADAP staff and the Rutgers community are excited that the Rutgers Recovery Program inspired legislation that could ultimately positively impact the lives of many more New Jersey college students in recovery,” said Laitman.

In an environment where drugs and alcohol can be an issue for recovery students, recovery housing offers a safe haven for students while allowing them experience campus life, said Rutgers Recovery Housing alumna, Morgan Thompson, 26.

She started Rutgers-New Brunswick in the fall of 2008 at the height of her heroin and cocaine addiction. But the Bethlehem Township, N.J., resident quickly dropped out when she realized she couldn’t support her habit without a car or job. After failing out of community college, Thompson sought treatment.

She reemerged serious about two things: staying clean and returning to school. But her addiction counselor thought triggers on campus would cause her to relapse, and didn’t recommend college until she was years into recovery.

“I thought my life for the next five years was going to be unstable, sitting in church basements at 12-step meetings,” she said. “It’s an important part of my recovery, but back then people in the meetings were at least 10 years older than me. I didn’t have a real group of peers in recovery.”

Thompson thought she’d blown her chance at a traditional college experience, until her mother told her about the Recovery House.

“The idea of going to Rutgers was at the same time thrilling but terrifying. I didn’t know if I could do it,” she said.  “It turned out to be the perfect place for me. I had friends who were clean and sober – students working toward the same goal as me.”

Today Thompson – who graduated in 2013 – is back at Rutgers working on her graduate degree in social work, and is program coordinator at The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience Strength and Hope Recovery High School in Roselle – the state’s first recovery high school.

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