Making Connections in Nashville

Fall campus shots(Vanderbilt Photo /  Daniel Dubois)

Vanderbilt University brings together students, alumni, and the surrounding community to promote collegiate recovery.

When Cornelius Vanderbilt donated $1 million to establish a private Southern university in 1873, he envisioned a place that “would contribute to strengthening the ties that should exist between all sections of our common country.” Today, Vanderbilt University applies that same ideal to its recovery program, strengthening the ties between students, their community, and a wide range of resources available to them at this historic and prestigious school, located less than two miles from downtown Nashville.

“Vanderbilt has become highly selective, so students have the advantage of incredible academics in a very nurturing environment,” said Katherine Drotos Cuthbert, coordinator of The Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education, which houses Vanderbilt Recovery Support (VRS). “Even though we have nearly 13,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students, our campus has a small, close-knit feel. Plus, it’s a designated national arboretum, so it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Vanderbilt was one of three sites selected for pilot programs when Texas Tech first tested its collegiate recovery curriculum. “The pilot program opened to students in the 2007-08 academic year,” Cuthbert said. “As with any program, VRS has continually evolved and adapted to the surrounding community, but the core, the foundation of it, is definitely the curriculum that Texas Tech gave us.”

Since Cuthbert became coordinator in 2011, active VRS participation has grown from 5 to 20

students, with a total of 45 active and nonactive members receiving e-news from the recovery community. The group now has its own gathering spot—the confidential VRS Lounge—in Carmichael Towers West on campus. It’s open 24/7 to students actively participating in the recovery program.

Like any other Collegiate Recovery Community, Vanderbilt had an important question to consider: What’s the best approach—creating a sense of secure fellowship for students in recovery or empowering them to participate in the same campus activities as everyone else?

“I would say you actually need to do both,” Cuthbert said. “We definitely want our VRS students to enjoy the total Vanderbilt experience and the Nashville community, but they also need to feel that they have a safe space. That’s why we call it the confidential VRS Lounge—students who aren’t members of the program can’t just pop in and hang out. I think that’s one reason our numbers have increased. Our students in recovery know they have a place where they can hang out, with no danger of being surrounded by alcohol or other drugs. They can be social and watch a movie, play board games, or just talk.”

Katherine Drotos Cuthbert

Katherine Drotos Cuthbert

Before coming to campus, all first-year and transfer students at Vanderbilt have to complete AlcoholEdu, a two- to three-hour online program that covers such topics as blood-alcohol concentration levels, drink sizes, and alcohol overdose. It also teaches students how to be a helpful bystander in difficult situations. In addition, incoming students complete an anonymous survey that sheds light on the types of behaviors they’re bringing with them to campus. “The last few years,” Cuthbert said, “we’ve noticed an increase in high-risk drinking behavior pre-matriculation, which means it starts before they come onto campus. And we see that behavior continuing once they’re here.”

Cuthbert works with a continuum of students—from those who have chosen a substance-free lifestyle, to low-risk users, high-risk users, and students in recovery. The VRS community welcomes professionals and alumni, as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

The top priority for Cuthbert is making connections between available services and the students who need them. Because she has a large umbrella of responsibility, she is able to promote the recovery community as she does all kinds of programming and outreach. The VRS Committee that Cuthbert leads involves faculty and staff from several key areas, as well as a number of campus partners. These include the Psychological and Counseling Center, Student Organizations and Governance, the Office of Housing and Residential Education, and the Commons, where all first-year students are housed. Cuthbert explained: “I want to make sure all of our faculty and staff, particularly members of our university boards and counsels, understand what we do and know that if they have a student coming back to Vanderbilt after treatment or maybe one who is in the contemplative state, or whatever the case may be, that there is support for them on campus.”

To build bridges with students, Cuthbert has a VRS graduate student worker who leads weekly support meetings in the VRS Lounge. She also has a VRS undergraduate worker who often takes the lead in coordinating social and service activities on and off campus. Both students are in recovery themselves and can offer their personal perspective to students who call or come by with questions. In addition, the VRS website overflows with listings for other meetings in the Nashville area, as well as educational articles and more resources.

There’s no shortage of social activity for VRS students, including movie nights in the VRS Lounge, sushi nights, monthly Clean Break Mondays with free coffee and live music at a local coffee house, concerts and other special events, group service projects, and much more. The Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education, along with VRS, recently partnered with Foundations Recovery Network to host a healthy tailgate for 200 people during Parents and Family Weekend. “I think these things are very important because they make students feel that they’re not alone and that there are people out there interested in supporting them,” Cuthbert explained.

The next steps, she said, are to add a residential piece to VRS and work toward a larger meeting space over the next two years: “In terms of residential services, we’re exploring several options, from space in one of the dorms to a smaller setting such as Vanderbilt’s Mayfield Place, which would have a service component, to something as basic as coordinating apartment rentals so that we pair up students in recovery to give them the security of a supportive roommate. As for our meeting space, what we have right now is brand-new and very cozy and really wonderful. But I think within a couple of years, we’ll likely outgrow it, so we’re trying to plan ahead.”

Reaching beyond the boundaries of Vanderbilt, Cuthbert is connecting with other area schools to see how they might collaborate. Belmont University, which is thinking of starting a CRC, is within walking distance of Vanderbilt, so the two schools are looking into the possibility of finding a meeting space that’s between the campuses to bring their students together.

“My biggest challenge is always the same,” Cuthbert said. “I know that there are more students out there who need our help, so how do we connect with them?”

One common CRC challenge that Cuthbert doesn’t face is lack of university buy-in. Vanderbilt administration backs the program wholeheartedly. “Students in recovery speak for themselves,” Cuthbert said.  “I think individuals who struggle with addiction have a lot of similar qualities. They’re creative and hardworking, focused and determined, and they bring all of that to whatever they do. These are the very students you want on campus.”


Vanderbilt at a Glance

Location: Nashville, TN

Campus Character: Privately supported university and medical center located less than two miles southwest of downtown Nashville. Established in 1873 with a $1 million gift from Cornelius Vanderbilt. Largest private employer in Middle Tennessee and second-largest private employer in the state. Home to more than 300 tree and shrub varieties; designated a national arboretum in 1988.

Number of Students: 12,745

Academic Offerings: Undergraduate programs in liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education, and human development. Full range of graduate and professional degrees. Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top 20 universities by publications such as U.S. News & World Report. Law school is among nation’s leading institutions and enrolled 175 students in its 2013 entering class. Medical school ranked 14th among accredited medical schools in U.S. News & World Report’s 2014 ranking of graduate education programs.

Points of Interest: The Peabody section of campus (a registered National Historic Landmark). Iconic Kirkland Hall, designed to resemble the Town Hall of Siena, Italy. Off-campus facilities such as Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory (on the National Register of Historic Places) and Vanderbilt Health at One Hundred Oaks.

General Campus Contact Info: Vanderbilt University, 2305 West End Avenue, Nashville, TN 37235; (615) 322-7311;

Vanderbilt Recovery Support Contact: 206 Sarratt Student Center, Nashville, TN  37235; (615) 343-8772;; Coordinator of The Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education Katherine Drotos Cuthbert, (615) 343-4740;

Photography courtesy of Vanderbilt University.


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