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My College Experience In Sobriety

After experiencing the best of what a collegiate recovery program can offer, recent graduate Gabe Stumme is on a mission to effect change at other schools.

My recovery began at PEASE Academy, which stands for “Peers Enjoying a Sober Education,” in Minneapolis. I went there because although I was trying to get sober, I was still surrounded by connections at my previous high school, and on a bad day, it was too easy to buy substances. I didn’t have a safety net, which was necessary for my early recovery efforts.

My transition to PEASE was not smooth:

I relapsed twice in my first month. The first time, there was a lot of forgiveness. The second time, the director told me that they didn’t have anything to offer me anymore. He said unless I was going to take my recovery seriously, my spot was needed for another student. I was given a break from the school, which was when it became real that I had run out of options. I couldn’t return to my previous school, and PEASE had asked me to leave.

However, the director had given me a window: If I could demonstrate to him over a period of two weeks that I could take my recovery seriously, then I could return. For the first time, I found the willingness necessary to work hard to sustain recovery. I started asking for help and stopped pretending that everything was OK. I returned to PEASE and got the help I needed.

One day, a student from Augsburg College came to PEASE to talk about the StepUP Program, which helps Augsburg students live a thriving sober life while pursuing their degrees. He seemed like he was enjoying college and succeeding. It was an eye-opener. That was the first time I witnessed that it was possible to stay sober in college. I had wanted to go to college but thought my options for sustaining my recovery weren’t very promising. As I started considering StepUP, I realized it was the natural next step for me. I applied to Augsburg and was accepted.

Living the Dream, Confronting Reality

When I started at Augsburg in 2011, the first thing I learned was that being sober in college is not only possible, but that it could also be fun and rewarding. I was worried that I would not get a real “college experience,” which I had built up in my head as very important. However, what I ended up getting was way more than I could have asked for. I made lifelong friends with whom I created great memories — all without the use of drugs or alcohol. I learned very quickly that we weren’t that different from the other students, and we certainly weren’t looked at in a different light for being sober and in recovery.

Gabe Stumme, Katie Strong, Joe Joyce and Anne Thompson Heller – all StepUP alumni – at the National Collegiate Recovery Conference in Reno, Nevada, in 2015.

We did not hide our recovery. Indeed, we were vocal about it and took action that created room for people who were coming to terms with their own substance abuse issues. From our voices, students seeking help knew where to come. I saw many students join StepUP through building friendships with students already in the program. StepUP has done so much good for Augsburg. It benefits the students immensely. Soon, I stopped appreciating it as much. I thought, collegiate recovery is such a beautiful thing, it must be available everywhere, right?

I was wrong.

Throughout college, I sought a major that would be fulfilling to me, but really, I was all over the place. In my junior year, I had the opportunity to go to the National Collegiate Recovery Conference in Reno, Nevada. It was there that I saw about 100 students in recovery who were talking about battling their administrations for funding just so they could have a space on campus where they could meet.

That’s when it hit me: Collegiate recovery communities are not available to everyone. Not everywhere is like Augsburg. I suddenly realized how fortunate I was. These students around me in the grassroots stages of their programs were heroes going to work to make things happen. I felt pulled to help change the college experience for other students in recovery.

There was a lot of relief and a great sense of duty that came with this direction. I returned home and got involved with service work at PEASE Academy, where I got to see an amazing group of students who were in a similar position to what I had been in not too long ago. They were full of surprises, especially when given the tools they needed to succeed. I got to experience what student success looked like beyond a GPA. The experience was rewarding — and a little surreal — and solidified that I wanted to work with recovering students.

At the National Collegiate Recovery Conference the following year, I did a presentation with one of the StepUP counselors who was also a professor at Augsburg. We were introduced by StepUP director Patrice Salmeri, who made a point to say to the crowd, “Gabe is looking for a job.” Although unexpected, I appreciated the shout-out and wondered if anything would come of it.

Although no one approached me after the conference, I received a message on my LinkedIn while waiting for my flight home. The man apologized for not being able to stick around after my presentation but said he wanted to chat about an idea he had for collegiate recovery at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. That man turned out to be Sam Price, the CEO of the Ten16 Recovery Network.

Because the collegiate recovery model was different from what I knew at Augsburg, I was a little apprehensive, but I decided to hear him out. After researching the company, I learned they are an amazing group. Their growth has been out of a sense of duty to the community. I told him to count me in.

Moving to a New World

I moved to Michigan in August 2016. It was terrifying, but my biggest fear was not knowing where I would be in 15 years if I didn’t try this out. What I found when I arrived was the most amazing community that took me in with arms wide open.

Central Michigan University has a lot of great services for students. It’s evident how much the school cares about students’ health and success. They have many programs in place for students struggling with sobriety. The CARE Team allows people to file an anonymous report if they are worried about someone who might need help. They have a fantastic university health service program, counseling center and dedicated residence life staff. However, Central Michigan also has a reputation for being a party school, which is difficult to shake.

I immediately clicked with the program supervisor, Jessica Miller, who is also from Minnesota and has been working as a counselor in higher education for the past 10 years. We started by doing stakeholder interviews, talking to students and the university community as well as residents in the Mount Pleasant area and service providers such as police officers. We wanted to figure out what the community needed and understand the attitudes people had toward what was in place and what had yet to be done. The interviews also gave us the opportunity to tell people who we were and what we wanted to do and to reassure them that we were not there to replace anything. We told them that the Central Michigan Collegiate Recovery, Education and Wellness program is a resource that enhances the services already in place. Our mission is to help students struggling with drugs and alcohol misuse and to provide education and prevention services to the campus at large in the form of evaluations, education classes, classroom presentations, recovery coaching and peer support groups.

One thing we discovered was that students think there is a lot more substance use on campus than there really is. Consider this: If students think that more than two-thirds of the campus is drinking on any given Friday night, then they are more inclined to drink because they would feel odd if they weren’t. We found a lot of students were engaged in partying during their freshman and sophomore years, but as upperclassmen, their drinking tapered off. Students voiced concerns about friends who weren’t growing out of that phase.

We also learned there was a strong desire for more sober social activities. The school hosted a sober tailgate and had a lot of programming for Sober in October, but the students wanted more regular events.

We are working to meet this need. As the student support coordinator, I facilitate two peer support groups each week during which we provide pizza and coffee and invite students to share their experiences of what it’s like to try to make better choices in their relationship with drugs and alcohol. Right now, we do not have sobriety requirements — just a desire to be sober. We honor anonymity and have respect for where others are. The program has no interest in dictating to any student what his or her relationship to drugs and alcohol needs to look like. Likewise, we don’t assume that everyone who walks through our doors has a substance use disorder. We work with each student to figure out where he or she is and what we can do to help.

Fellow SteUP student Collins Nesbit and Gabe Stumme at he National Collegiate Recovery Conference in Atlanta in 2016.

We provide one-on-one recovery coaching. Some students we encounter aren’t ready, which is totally fine. We work with them to establish what stage they are in and set guidelines. If the guidelines don’t work, we invite the students to come back and figure out what the next step will look like. We work through the stages of contemplation, from pre-contemplation to maintenance.

Our community grew primarily through building relationships with faculty and staff who are on the front lines with the students — residence life, counseling center, CARE Team and substance use disorder professors — social media outreach on Facebook and Instagram, and fliers. In addition, we serve on our county’s local substance use coalition. Building relationships with people is key. Word of mouth goes a long way.

Our goal is to be a place where anyone who wishes to live fully without relying on drugs and alcohol can receive the support they need. It’s like what I saw happening at PEASE Academy: When students begin to care and become vocal, they create room for others — who might not be in the same place to ask for help — to do the same.

In the new Student Organization for Addiction Recovery (SOAR), people in recovery and allies come together to plan sober social events and events to reduce stigma surrounding substance use disorders. A lot of students don’t realize that their use is abnormal or may be a problem because they surround themselves with people who are doing the same thing. We want them to know that they can have friendships and a full college experience while living sober. I know I didn’t get sober to sit in my dorm room or to hide from life. I got sober to live. We want every student to have that same ability.

Written by Gabe Stumme, as told to Patti Zielinski

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