Strength in Numbers

For the past 15 years, Patrice Salmeri has led the pioneering StepUP® Program at Augsburg College, setting a standard for other institutions nationwide. Now, a new position is allowing her to take her promotion of collegiate recovery to the next level.

Patrice Salmeri tried to catch my call on the last ring, but she wasn’t quick enough. Calling me immediately back, the veteran director of Augsburg College’s prestigious StepUP® Program was apologetic: “I’m sorry I missed your call. A student was here, and I was giving him a hug.”

That’s how Salmeri is: She loves her students in recovery, admires them and always puts them first.

Having regular encounters with students is the biggest thing Salmeri will miss when she begins her next chapter as executive director for Recovery Advancement at Augsburg College in Minneapolis this summer. The donor-endowed position is new to Augsburg and will allow the school to expand its work in the field of collegiate recovery both on campus and around the nation.

Founded in 1997, StepUP is the largest residential collegiate recovery program in the nation and has long been regarded as a national model in collegiate recovery. Calling Salmeri’s appointment “a pivotal moment for students in recovery across the nation,” Augsburg President Paul C. Pribbenow says the position will allow the college to further its mission in encouraging and shaping how other colleges and universities support young people in recovery, to work to effect policies and programs that will staunch the opioid epidemic, and to reduce the stigma associated with addiction so that young people can lead lives of meaning.

StepUP graduation

Since Salmeri began her tenure as StepUP director in 2002, the program has experienced a 300 percent increase in the number of young people in recovery pursuing a college education. A past president of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, she is nationally recognized as a champion of recovery, an expert on residential collegiate recovery and a sought-out speaker on substance use disorder issues related to young people. She has implemented and supervised numerous grant-funded expansions of the program. Notably, one project resulted in the successful implementation of collegiate recovery programs in public and private colleges throughout the United States.

In her new role, Salmeri will concentrate on the reducing stigma associated with substance use disorder recovery by advising on and shaping policy issues among state and federal government agencies and offices, nonprofits and community organizations, and professional associations. She will advise the college president on issues and resources related to support for student recovery and inspire other colleges and universities nationwide to provide recovery programs modeled after StepUP. On campus, she will develop pilot programs for students who have graduated from or left the StepUP Program but still have coursework to complete, work with StepUP alumni to understand the long-term positive effects of living in a recovery community during college, and connect soon-to-graduate students with program alumni.

Salmeri shares with Recovery Campus her reflections on her 15 years of work with StepUP and how her new position will allow Augsburg to further its mission of providing a recovery-friendly campus environment for all students and educating schools across the nation on the important role these communities play in higher education.

Recovery Campus: How did this new position come about?

Patrice Salmeri: Augsburg received funding for a new position in the field of collegiate recovery with more strategic responsibilities that would keep the president apprised of what is going on around the country and allow recovery to remain at the forefront of the college’s mission. It’s wonderful that the college administration thinks so highly of recovery that it created an executive director for Recovery Advancement position. It speaks volumes to the college’s values and mission.

Patrice and Michael Botticelli, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

RC: The change, however, must be bittersweet.

PS: Since the day I interviewed for my current position, I’ve always said that this is my dream job. So, yes, this change will be bittersweet because I have been working with students for so long and will miss that daily interaction. However, I am looking forward to focusing more attention on alumni and the value they bring to our community as well as advocating on local, regional and national levels. These are all endeavors that I’ve tried to do in my current role but did not always have the time to pursue. I’m excited for StepUP to get a new director who will bring fresh eyes to the program while I focus on new populations, such as graduate and nontraditional students.

RC: The StepUP Program has long served as a model for other colleges and universities. How will your new position take this service to the next level? 

PS: I now have more leeway to travel and help schools advocate with their administrations and begin programs. Not all schools can replicate StepUP, though, because our cornerstone is the residential component. I believe that is very important, but not all schools can provide a residence.

Our program works well with high school students who are launching into college as well as older students who have not been successful elsewhere. We give them a residence hall experience without drugs or alcohol and include building a community with like-minded people. It’s certainly worked for us: We’ve gone from 23 student members annually to more than 100. The residential component started from the very beginning, and now we have an entire StepUP residence hall, which can house 106 students. Considering our undergraduate population is about 2,000, this is substantial.

RC: Discuss the importance of support from the administration in the success of a collegiate recovery program.

PS: When our president, Paul Pribbenow, came to Augsburg more than a decade ago, he had already done his research. He met with people in the community who understood StepUP’s importance and learned about recovery efforts and how drugs and alcohol can ravage communities and affect families. He comes to speak to StepUP students during orientation because he says they already live part of the college’s mission with what they do at meetings and how they serve the community. He calls them “storytellers” and says they are what civic engagement looks like. This is important to Augsburg. The college has won the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll several times, with StepUP contributing hundreds of hours of service toward our total. A couple of StepUP members also have won an award at graduation that goes to a student who is very involved in service to the community. It’s the highest recognition you can get at commencement. That is something they do naturally as part of their program. For example, our students have made blankets for the homeless. Their hearts go out to people who live on the street because so many of them know what that is like. With these deeds, they fulfill Augsburg’s mission of being thoughtful stewards, contributing to the community through their time, energy and thoughts.

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