Students Take the Lead

Campus Life Lead

How do you launch a Recovery Program with virtually no resources? The University of California, Riverside, just email your students.


Back in 2008, collegiate recovery wasn’t even on the radar screen for Audrey L. Pusey, MEd, CADC, ICADC—or for most other university faculty and administrators. Despite long-running programs at Texas Tech University, Rutgers University, and Augsburg College, campus recovery programs were still a very new concept. Pusey, who is an associate director for Residence Life and Student Conduct at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), was actually exploring a different program altogether when she and a colleague ran across some information about the Center for the Study of Addiction Recovery (CSAR) at Texas Tech. Immediately intrigued, they contacted the CSAR, talked with Matt Russell, PhD, and invited him to hold a seminar on the Riverside campus.

“We invited about 25 people from various on-campus departments, and surrounding universities and got mixed reviews,” Pusey recalled. “The truth is that it’s very hard to explain the difference between treatment and recovery to members of the community who may not necessarily be trained on the topic of addiction, so it was difficult to convey what, exactly, we were proposing. Also, the budgetary situation of most public universities back then was pretty dire, so there was no funding available. And UCR isn’t known as a ‘party school,’ so we were hearing things like ‘we don’t have a problem’ and ‘we’re not a treatment center.’ We were working against stigma and funding issues, and our efforts didn’t get very far at the time.”

Pusey, however, was convinced that there was a great need for recovery support at UCR. As part of her work in dealing with student conduct concerns, she frequently identified students who were struggling with underlying addiction issues. She believed some type of program would be a huge asset in Riverside.

“This is an incredible research university, with one of the most diverse and inclusive student populations in the country and some of the hardest-working, most respectful students I’ve ever worked with,” Pusey said. “We have many first-generation students who are helping take care of their families while they go to school. Many don’t have time for partying, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need recovery support. Our students are vulnerable to Adderall and other stimulants that will help them stay up because they have so much to do. And then they’ll take something else to help them relax.”

“Our campus is in no way immune to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse that is hitting the nation,” Pusey continued. “Our students have such drive to be successful, setting very high standards for themselves, often with the belief that they aren’t allowed to fail. This creates a level of anxiety which exacerbates mental health issues. We have students who are under a lot of stress, some of it self-imposed and some of it generated by their life situations. It’s a myth that only ‘party’ schools need recovery support. More and more students are receiving treatment at early ages, and they enter a college environment that sets them up to fail.”

Though the UCR administration wasn’t initially sold on a recovery program, Pusey was allowed to continue exploring the idea, even going as far as establishing a steering committee with 15 directors from departments across campus, including the associate dean of the School of Medicine. Though the committee tried to develop a mission for the program and get it moving, Pusey said, they really weren’t making much progress. By the end of 2010, she was ready to give up. Almost.

Work & Play A student takes a study break at the Highlander Union Building.

Work & Play
A student takes a study break at the Highlander Union Building.

“I work in Residence Life with some outstanding student leaders,” she explained. “I just sent out an email that basically said, ‘Hey, we’re interested in starting something for students in recovery, so if you’re interested, come see me.’ Right away, Mariel Bello, who was a third-year psychology major at the time, dropped by and told me that she was not in recovery but would like to participate. She described to me how her life had been affected by drugs and alcohol even though she had no personal history of addiction.  I told her that not only could she participate, she could lead!”

Bello got her friends involved, and before long, The Healing Highlanders student organization was off and running, with Pusey as an advisor and Bello as founding president. The group defines itself as a service-based organization providing “a nurturing and affirming environment” for students in recovery and for those who support them. There’s also a strong emphasis on service—to the university; to the local, state, and national community; and to the recovery movement.  An interesting aspect of this group is that they include all types of addictive behaviors within their mission. “They want to be inclusive, creating resources for all students, regardless of whether they are dealing with an eating order, a gambling addition, or a substance abuse issue, etc.,” said Pusey.

Starting with just four students, The Healing Highlanders quickly grew. By participating in tabling at the university’s Highlander Orientation sessions for first-year and transfer students, the organization advanced its membership and helped educate the campus about the need for recovery support. They began holding student meetings, and by the end of 2011, membership had grown to 20.


The Highlander Union Building rotunda offers a prime gathering spot for students.


The Healing Highlanders spent a year planning what would become the phenomenally successful California Unified Collegiate Recovery Conference, held in October 2012. Originally intended for California and Western-region universities, the event drew some 200 attendees from schools across the country, including approximately 35 from Texas Tech who came to support the new group. Working with the Association of Recovery in Higher Education board, students booked nationally known speakers for the conference, such as Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack; Kitty Harris, PhD, LMFT, LCDC, director of the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech; Harry L. Haroutunian, MD, physician director of the Betty Ford Center, and many more. By reaching out to sponsors and donors, the students funded the entire event and brought some $20,000 in business to the university. At the end of the conference, The Healing Highlanders received a surprise donation of $10,000 from the Stacie Mathewson Foundation.

In recognition of contributions to the university and the community, UCR named  Healing Highlanders the New Student Organization of the Year for 2011-12. The group also took home the Student Organization Educational Program of the Year award for 2012-13 in recognition of the implementation of their conference, and Mariel Bello was named Student Organization President of the Year for 2012-13

Now with 40 members, the group received the prestigious University of California President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership in 2013. Each year, the chancellors of the University of California’s 10 campuses, as well as the University of California Student Association, may submit up to three nominees from each campus to vie for the award. The Healing Highlanders was one of two recipients of the award this year.

“What’s so special about Healing Highlanders is that it didn’t start with students in recovery,” Pusey said. “It started with students for recovery. Students like Mariel Bello saw this as a social justice issue and thought the campus needed to make a way for students in recovery to be comfortable here, to feel that college is accessible to them and that they have a safe haven.”

Members of The Healing Highlanders are advocating for addiction training in all physicians’ tracks at the UCR School of Medicine and working with other campuses to aid in launching recovery communities throughout the state. The group also has begun partnering with the MFI (My Family, Inc.) Recovery Center in Riverside to establish and implement a mentoring program between high school students at the center and Healing Highlander members.

“We’ve received very positive feedback from MFI,” Pusey said. “Many of these high school students are not from wealthy families, and their first language is not English. UCR is also a Hispanic Serving Institution, so for these teenagers to be mentored by Healing Highlander members they can relate to—someone who can say, ‘I did it, and so can you’—that’s extremely powerful.”

This determined California group still faces challenges. In the immediate future, they’re working toward a dedicated on-campus meeting space and additional funding, while looking at successful models like Texas Tech for direction and inspiration. They are also preparing for the 2nd Annual California Collegiate Recovery Conference, to be held on the UCR campus the weekend of November 2-3, 2013.

“One step in front of the other is the way you have to look at it, I think,” said Pusey. “But it’s absolutely worth the effort because addiction touches everybody in one way or another. Our Healing Highlanders students understand that. I’m incredibly proud of what they’ve created here.”

Side Note

04UCR at a Glance

Location: Riverside, California

Campus Character: Park-like campus on nearly 1,200 acres near Box Springs Mountain, the highest peak in the Box Springs Mountains range; a day trip from the Sierras, Southern California beaches, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. Extremely diverse student population, including 39.9 percent Asian/Asian American students; 28.9 percent Chicano and Latino; 17 percent White/Caucasian; 7.9 percent African American; and a small percentage of Native American and international students.

Number of Students: 21,005

Academic Offerings: 89 bachelor’s degree programs, 53 master’s programs, 45 PhD programs; California’s first new public medical school in 40 years. Major research center in the University of California system with a 100-year history of improving citrus production; worldwide recognition for breakthroughs in plant sciences, environmental and natural resources, and pest management; 13 centers and institutes for research.

Points of Interest: Tomás Rivera Library, home of the famed Eaton Collection, the world’s largest cataloged collection of science fiction and fantasy; a 48-bell carillon (from the Paccard Bell Foundry in France), housed in a 161-foot tower; a 40-acre botanical garden in the foothills of the Box Springs Mountains; the “Big C,” a gigantic poured-concrete letter, built mostly by UCR students in 1957 and imbedded into Box Springs Mountain.

General Campus Contact Info: University of California, Riverside, 900 University Ave., Riverside, CA  92521 (951-827-1012)

Healing Highlanders Contact: Audrey Pusey, Advisor,;

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