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A New Type of Fraternity Life

Alpha 180 — the nation’s first sober fraternity — provides an opportunity for motivated young adults in early recovery to launch or to resume their college careers in a safe and supportive setting.

Bobby Ferguson grew up hating treatment.

“I was a pretty hyper kid,” he says. “I didn’t sleep very well, and my grades in school started to slide.” Concerned for their 10-year-old son, his parents took him to see a prominent New York City psychiatrist, and Ferguson began what would be a long journey into intensive psychotherapy — four days a week for the next five years.

Feeling isolated and that he was “missing out,” Ferguson remembers how he hated going to therapy as a kid and how he longed to make friends. “For me at least, feeling better involved running around and having fun, not engaging in countless hours of one-to-one therapy.”

This past fall, Ferguson, the founder of Jaywalker Lodge, a transitional recovery program for young men in Colorado, launched a unique concept centering on the importance of peer relationships in a healthy recovery life: a sober fraternity named Alpha 180.

Alpha 180’s flagship chapter opened in September 2017 in a former Phi Delta Theta fraternity house walking distance from the University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College as a lifestyle support program for college students in sobriety. Although it is not part of the Greek system, Alpha 180 incorporates fellowship and community outreach as its foundation. It is a licensed addiction treatment program that provides a supportive re-entry platform for newly sober students who are returning to or starting college in early recovery with three pillars of support services: abstinence-based, zero-tolerance sober housing; a sober fraternity house with no dues or fees; and clinical support services.

Recovery Campus spoke with Ferguson and Nico Doorn, director of recovery services, about the vision behind Alpha 180 and how it promotes recovery with young adults in a unique way.

Recovery Campus: How did the concept of Alpha 180 come about?

Bobby Ferguson: I’ve been doubly blessed, both in my own sober journey and by having the opportunity to work with so many young adults in early recovery. There is no greater thrill I know than being truly present with another person when the lights come on. At Jaywalker Lodge, I have been lifted time and again by the spirit of brotherhood in sobriety, which defines our community. It’s very powerful, and our guys have come to rely upon it.

Watching our alumni pursue their dreams in recovery over the years, I have learned to never underestimate the upside of sober young adults with a common call to purpose. I believe that’s really what [collegiate recovery communities (CRCs)] and the collegiate recovery movement is all about: forging lifelong friendships and achieving goals together as students in recovery. But the question for those returning to college is: Where are the gaps? What basic services and resources will I need to transition safely from treatment into my CRC on campus? Alpha 180 wants to provide that platform.

RC: What does the name mean?

Nico Doorn: The name came about in an effort to play off the fraternity influence, so we certainly needed to include a Greek letter. Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, represents the beginning of something but can also refer to a jumping-off point or strength. The number 180 is about turning your life around. So you can think of Alpha 180 as the beginning of a profound turnaround.

RC: How does the sober fraternity concept bring a new perspective to living in recovery as a student?

BF: A college campus is an abstinence-hostile war zone for recovery. The sober fraternity is a space filled with champions trying to make a difference. Excellence is expected among participants in traditional collegiate recovery communities. Members have a 4 to 8 percent chance of relapse — a better recovery rate than any treatment model we know. The limitation of a CRC is that it is part of an academic institution with an academic focus whose primary goal is education. What we’re looking at is an unmet need around services that bridge clinical and academic.

We see a few gaps with CRCs in general. Only the most evolved have zero-tolerance, abstinence-based housing; otherwise, housing can be random. There are limitations in resources, and even the most evolved CRCs lack some clinical resources.

We believe that if students in recovery want a true sense of belonging, they need to have four walls and a roof. It’s hard to move a marginalized, stigmatized community out of the shadows into the mainstream if all you can give them is a corner conference room in the mental health services building. However, even that one room is a huge achievement if you’ve been battling the administration to dedicate any space.

ND: I began my college journey in a CRC, and I have never seen a more effective and inspired cultivation of a healthy recovery community. They are near to my heart and inform the culture we hope to cultivate here. However, there are many things that keep a CRC from being what it could be, should be and needs to be: waiting for academia to move forward, fighting for funding, organizing simple events, etc. The process doesn’t move fast enough for me. Students in recovery need a space they can be proud of, a staff that is solely dedicated to them, and resources to support their goals and needs. Alpha 180 is not a replacement but a complement to CRCs, providing a platform that prepares and launches students.

Dorn and Ferguson transformed a Phi Delta Theta fraternity house into a sober clubhouse where all college students in recovery are welcome.

RC: Describe the importance of having a foundation of peers in recovery. 

BF: Abstinence is an essential strategy in early recovery, but the ultimate goal of sobriety is a life of joy, abundance and meaning. For young adults, connections with peers are a far more accurate predictor of long-term sobriety than the therapeutic alliance with their counselor. Most of the young adults I know are less afraid of dying in their addiction than they are of becoming irrelevant, insignificant, invisible, unheard, unnoticed, well-behaved sheep in their recovery.

At Jaywalker Lodge and at Alpha 180, we value peer-to-peer relationships above all else. We emphasize connection with others. What does it mean to make a new friend? To be that friend to someone else? To have someone’s back, right or wrong, and to know they have yours? For young adults in early recovery, I believe the need to be connected and stay connected must come first.

ND: We don’t believe that returning to college early in recovery is a treatment solution or that going to college makes you stay sober. What we believe is that there are certain individuals for whom a college experience is a part of who they are as a person. For me, education instilled self-esteem and hope in a way that nothing else has. From my own experience — and what we’re finding through the research and the success of collegiate recovery communities — is that young adults thrive with having a peer community and goals that have fast rewards. For example, it felt good to me to walk into a class positive I was going to fail it, spend hours on a paper and then get an A.

I’m a result of being surrounded by people who made doing the right thing the desirable thing to do to fit in and have fun. That’s the kind of community that we want to create — a community in which our students feel like they have a say and that they are contributing to something they can feel a part of, emphasizing leadership and service work in the community.

RC: Describe the ideal candidate for Alpha 180.

ND: Not every client will live in our sober living community, but for those who do, we have a very rigid admission requirement in that we want the young man — or lady, in the future — who is personally motivated to go back to college, not because their parents want them to go but because they do. We want the student who has stopped running from addiction and has started running toward recovery.

People should have a minimum of 30 days of sobriety and should have made a personal commitment to recovery. We require an essay. I see this as a middle ground between an application process to a school and admission to a treatment center. In the essay, we ask them to write about what their recovery has meant to them so far, where they see themselves going and how we can support them.

For me, going to college meant that for the first time in a really long time I felt like I was choosing for myself — which is how we want our guys to feel as well. We don’t want to take every single person who falls into the 18- to 25-year-old age range who should go back to college because it would be good for them. We want a professional who believes this is in their best interest to come to us and work collaboratively to create an individual plan for just them.

Unlike CRC requirements, Alpha 180 does not require that a person is admitted to a school. Someone could live with us with the intention of starting class in a few months. Part of our process is identifying a school that would be the best fit and then walking the person through the admission process. We expect to serve students who are not full time yet. Maybe they’re taking one class or are in trade school or are working their way back to a university. It’s nice that Austin Community College works on a schedule that allows students to enroll at any time.

When someone is newly sober and coming to our program, we have our work cut out for us, so we require a one-semester-minimum commitment. Our goal is that by the time a person leaves the program, they are CRC-ready in terms of being able to carry a full-time course load, manage the day-to-day tasks that any college student should be able to and maintain sobriety in that environment without a tremendous amount of structure.

RC: What clinical support services do you offer?

BF: Alpha 180 provides licensed clinical support services for newly sober students transitioning from treatment back to college in recovery. For those who seek or require it, Alpha 180 provides an intensive outpatient program that meets three days a week for three hours each day. All students meet individually with our case manager to develop an educational plan with a timeline and steps to achieve their goals. All clinical staff not only have a master’s degree, but also most are in recovery and went through college sober, so they can share firsthand experience with clients.

All Alpha 180 residents attend 12-step meetings, work with a sponsor and participate in service work. Prior to taking on a full college course load, some students may work part time in the community.

ND: People do not need to live in the sober residence to use our services. And although we definitely stand by a 12-step model, we are open to any personal form of recovery that someone may choose.

The case management service we offer is a little stronger than most CRCs are able to provide. The case manager can do everything from helping a person create a study schedule and a class schedule to making sure he attends his psychiatrist appointment or fills his prescription at the pharmacy. We use a money management system that allows us to monitor spending while residents have a healthy amount of freedom to practice financial life skills.

RC: How is the converted fraternity house used?

ND: After we purchased the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, we transformed it into a sober clubhouse where all college students in recovery are welcome. Here, students can hang out, study, host recovery meetings and hold sober parties in the downstairs area. We have an open-door policy to anybody in recovery who wants to use the space. Upstairs is where we have the licensed intensive outpatient program, which offers group and individual therapy.

The zero-tolerance residence is walking distance from the fraternity house. The space feels good. It’s not hidden in a corner but is open and welcoming.

We’re not on Greek Row, but we are smack in the middle of West Campus student housing. On game day, the streets are crowded and people are partying — and it allows our members to have a real college experience even though they have chosen recovery for themselves. We want to be preventative but don’t want to shield them from the college world. We want to normalize being a college student in recovery, not recklessly but in a thought-out way.

RC: Do you provide social activities as part of the program?

BF: Because we believe that having fun is serious business in early recovery, it’s wide open at Alpha 180. Live music, great food, recovery speakers, holiday theme parties, sober tailgates — you name it. The house is a community resource that is open and available to any and all sober students at no charge for hanging out, socializing and studying. For students enrolled in our sober housing or case management services, we also provide recreational activities such as hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, etc.

RC: How do you work with the local university?

ND: We’re not directly affiliated with the university, but we work in close collaboration with the University of Texas Center for Students in Recovery (CSR).

We support them in unique ways and do not take anything from them. We don’t schedule anything when the CSR has meetings; our guys have to go to that meeting. Any gains we make socially or in terms of momentum at the expense of the existing community means we’ve created a problem, not a solution.

RC: Tell us how Alpha 180’s first semester went.

ND: We have been blown away by the support that we have been shown. The students enrolled are thriving in school and their recovery. Furthermore, the community has come out in droves to support events we’ve had, such as speaker meetings and tailgates. Every week, we host an open dinner and meeting that is full of current and aspiring students in recovery. It’s incredibly encouraging to see colleagues in the treatment industry get excited but even more so to see a young person in recovery decide to try college because of the example of an Alpha 180 student.

Written by Patti Zielinski

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