Strength in Numbers

It’s wonderful that the president and his cabinet get excited about what we do and are interested in learning from these students and their families.

RC: How do you describe StepUP students?

PS: These students are great examples of the best parts of recovery. This is true of students in recovery across the country: If you look at these young people, you would never think in a million years that they were drug addicts or alcoholics.

We see them at their best in recovery.

RC: Why are students in recovery an asset to higher education?

PS: Institutions of higher learning should have a strong interest in attracting and retaining these students. When we look at surveys of recovery programs nationwide, the GPAs of students are often higher than the school’s average. Here, we have averaged a 3.2 overall GPA with students in StepUP over our 20-year history. Our abstinence rates are 97 percent, which is consistent across the country with collegiate recovery programs.

Let’s say a student had to leave school to enter treatment but the college did not have a recovery program. Likely, the student would be reluctant to return because, to him or her, it would be like returning to a bar. If recovery programs were on all campuses, the colleges would be able to retain these excellent students and prevent the loss of revenue and the loss of a student. They would be creating a system that helps retain an individual who will graduate as a good citizen and leader with a high GPA. But there’s more:

The schools would also be creating a crucial environment that promotes sustained recovery. We know that the longer students stay in an environment that supports recovery, the better chance they have of staying sober for life.

RC: What is the biggest challenge you see at other schools in starting collegiate recovery programs?

PS: Stigma. We still hear, “We don’t want ‘those people’ on campus.” Schools often erroneously equate students in recovery to those using drugs.

Wherever I go, one of my biggest jobs is to reduce stigma and to talk about it. When I teach classes, I ask, “When you hear the words ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addict,’ what comes to mind?” People don’t plan on becoming an addict, and those in recovery have beautiful stories to tell. More people need to hear those stories. This is why I bring students with me to conferences and on college visits. I like in-person stories from real people. These real-life recovery stories need to reflect the local community. It’s impressive when you bring leaders such as people in student government to talk about their recovery experiences.

RC: How important are allies to students in recovery?

PS: These students are important in building our community. Many students do not want to use substances due to their faith or lifestyle choice. Our events are about supporting all students who choose sobriety. We have fun — why wouldn’t other students want to be a part of that?

When I first started, I wanted every student to have a circle of support. I found faculty members who were very supportive and understood addiction recovery. I also found coaches who valued helping a person getting back on track. Celebrations after athletic events can often include drugs and alcohol. It’s very difficult for a student in recovery to find a way to celebrate because it is too hard to be present and not drink. So, unless those students find allies and peers who are going to attend the game and do something together afterward, they’re alone. This year, we have five football players in the program; there’s the group students can celebrate with after the game. In fact, we have had athletes from every sport. A thriving community with students from all walks of life makes the program accessible and positive.

Salmeri poses at Ausburg’s Gratitude Gala.

RC: Tell us more about the breadth of the community?

PS: A big worry with high school students who have a sober life is that they won’t have a “true” college experience if they don’t partake in what is going on. However, here, they have hundreds of people to support them. It’s not just the people in StepUP; anywhere you go on campus, you find people who understand. There are a lot of non-students who are in recovery, such as professors and staff. And for those people not in recovery, there are less than six degrees of separation in knowing someone who is. We’ve created as close to a stigma-free campus as I’ve ever seen.

We make introductions. As soon as students get accepted into StepUP, they are paired with an upper-class student mentor. We also did a pilot program where we paired a student with a faculty or staff mentor in recovery. We found they went on to develop great relationships as they understood what those students were going through beyond the everyday stresses of college. Students don’t have to stay in StepUP all four years. If they reach a point where they feel they have the skills to live off campus, they may decide to live with others from the program. I think about 10 percent of the student population is still in recovery at Augsburg. There is a lot of support here.

That’s what’s so exciting about this new position. We are already bringing alumni on campus to meet current students. Soon, we will have a network of alumni from all over the country that students can connect with who share their major. What’s great is that many of our graduates go on to pay it forward and work for or launch programs at other universities. Our community is growing nationwide.

Salmeri and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar

RC: How do you widen your circle beyond campus?

PS: In the Twin Cities area, there is no shortage of things to do in recovery — from meetings specifically for young people to gratitude nights and dances. Our campus is in the city, which is filled with theater, art and music.

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