Things to Look Forward to in College
Undergrads and graduate students share alternatives to big parties, excessive alcohol and sex you don’t remember in the morning.
In May, shouts of excitement and congratulations echo from American high schools. Talk about what comes next and promises of time together over the summer fill Snapchat. Freedom from parental controls and family rules looms like the red apple in Eden: You just have to reach out and grab it for your life to be your own.
By late August and early September, anxiety has crept in and replaced the initial euphoria. What will college really be like? Will I make friends? How will I handle my classes? Will I have a fun social life?
Still, freedom maintains its appeal as young people conjure images of living with friends (instead of parents), attending late-night parties fueled by kegs and Jello shots, or tailgating with a mixed drink in hand at university sports events. Indeed, participation in the college party scene almost feels like a rite of passage.
But what if that rite of passage is riddled with danger? What if the tempting apple could cause you to choke? Not to worry. Here, six students in recovery share their ideas on how to maintain sobriety while still having a full college experience.
No FOMO here.
Struggling with anxiety and insomnia, then-17-year-old Carly M., above in gray, turned to alcohol as her means of coping. She enrolled at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) because, for her, that was the “normal” thing to do. “I didn’t even have a major for the first year,” she says. But, “once I got sober, I realized that I could use my past experience with mental health and addiction issues to help others, so I began studying social work.”
Carly, now 23 and a 2018 FAU graduate, agrees that the typical college experience involves a lot of partying. To normalize her own experience once she got sober, she surrounded herself with other sober students and friends she met through her major and by attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
“When I got sober, I put effort into befriending people I had things in common with. This doesn’t mean that all my friends are sober, but I do have a group of sober friends, and my other friends are aware of my lifestyle choice and choose to respect it. It is so important to have friends who respect the sober lifestyle.”
In addition, she didn’t limit herself to substance-free events. “At first, I won’t lie, it was hard to be around alcohol. But at some point, I began doing normal things again like going to bars and events. I am not there to drink; I am there to spend time with friends.” She emphasizes again the importance of spending time “with close friends who care about you and are aware of your sober lifestyle.” As a result of her careful curation of friends, she has been able to attend events on campus and in the local community and travel with classmates, including a spring break trip to New York City.
Andrew Caryl had run away from home, overdosed, attended long-term treatment and relapsed by 16. Nevertheless, he graduated high school and got accepted into West Virginia University (WVU), a school once known for its party reputation. He remained there in active addiction, completing more than 90 credits and carrying a 3.1 GPA until his senior year when his parents discovered that he was using drugs daily. They sent him to long-term treatment.
Ten years (and a rollercoaster of treatment, relapse and, finally, recovery) later, he re-enrolled at WVU. By that point, WVU had a collegiate recovery program (CRP), and Caryl joined it.
When asked about the social aspects of college, he sagaciously says, “Social connection and belonging is important for any human being; however, given the developmental stage of college students and the needs of people in recovery, that social connection and belonging is critical.” The CRP “has been essential at ‘normalizing’ my experience here,” he says. “[It] has allowed me to connect with the greater university community through our various activities.”
He talks about sober tailgates, during which the group cooks out, fellowships and watches the football games together. “At a school where football games are a huge part of the college experience, students in recovery are often forced to choose between being around massive amounts of alcohol consumption … or missing out and feeling isolated from the WVU community. Our tailgates allow students in recovery to still get the Saturday game day experience without exposing themselves to the abstinence-hostile environment around the games.”
He also mentions how a CRP member and former tennis player put together a free tennis clinic with the WVU tennis team. Because she arranged it, “I got to spend an afternoon playing tennis with the team, which is not something I would have done on my own.”
“I started drinking when I was 13,” says Victoria Weber, pictured above holding flowers. By 17, she had overdosed, been sexually assaulted twice, moved out of her family home, developed an eating disorder and tried to commit suicide.
“My saving grace was that I’m really smart,” she says. “Even though I was in and out of the hospital and adolescent treatment programs, I was going to class, doing well on the SAT and taking AP classes. I had compartmentalized my life. But as I got older, it got harder to compartmentalize the lives.”
Her addiction did not stop her from getting into Emory University. While there, she continued to struggle with addiction and depression, and on the advice of an on-campus therapist, agreed to treatment and sober living in Mississippi. The experience proved transformative. Weber returned to Emory and helped start the university’s collegiate recovery community. She graduated in 2016 and is now earning her master’s in social work at the University of Southern California.
She credits a solid group of friends for helping her maintain her sobriety at Emory. Plus, she says, she didn’t think she was missing out anything: “I had already seen or done everything by the time I got sober at 19.
“Now”, she adds, “I don’t need to be drunk to be at a bar or to go dancing. Being drunk or high robs me of the presence of the moment. I don’t need substances to have a good time.” Weber found her good time among friends, both those she had before recovery and those she has made since being in recovery. She also pursued interests she had let lapse, such as dancing, writing and acting, by making those parts of her time on the Emory campus.
Because the Atlanta-based campus is small, she relied on her friends and her sorority sisters for support. “I needed that core group of people who really understood, not just what it meant to be sober but to be a sober Emory college student. We came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and academic rigor. We shared aspirations, drive and motivation.”
For her, the friendships made the difference, enabling her to be more than a student in recovery. “I’m more than a label,” she says. “I got sober so I can be a functioning member of society and create a lasting impact on the world.”
In high school, Trevor Gates had denied offers of drugs and alcohol, in part, because he is severely vision impaired. His parents feared for his general safety and were cautious about letting him out without assistance, which led to limited access to illegal substances.
But after graduation and while attending community college, the depression and anxiety he had already been feeling amplified. He self-medicated with marijuana, becoming a self-described “pot-head.”
But the drug wasn’t enough to overcome his depression. He was contemplating suicide when he met a guy who introduced him to Refuge Recovery. “Suddenly, I had a community who encouraged me to find healthier ways to deal with the things I was going through,” he says.
Gates transferred what he learned about recovery to Campus Connection, a collegiate recovery community he helped start at Southwestern Community College in the mountains of North Carolina.
He thinks people generally have a misperception of college: “They think it’s partying and waking up on someone else’s couch each night. I see it differently, maybe because I’m doing community college first. I see it as a time to find yourself. You can do that without a substance. It’s a time to explore who you are while getting an education and planning for your future.”
He will enroll at Western Carolina University, but he is grateful for his time in community college because “at university, you can get lost in the shuffle. … At community college, you can go at your own pace, which suits someone in recovery very well.”
He adds that Campus Connection has a relationship with Western Carolina’s collegiate recovery program, Catamounts for Recovery. Because of that, he and others at Southwestern Community College already have connections once they are attending the university. He already attends sober tailgates, game nights, movie outings and concerts on campus.
“I find that I can grow my relationships better without being high. I’m advocating that sober fun is cool.”
“I never partied in high school, and I never drank or did drugs,” shares 2018 College of Charleston graduate Ashleigh Smith. But from the first few times she drank in college, she knew alcohol had a power over her. Smoking marijuana had a similar effect, and after six months of use, she couldn’t stop abusing pot.
A friend convinced her to attend an AA meeting; her sobriety date is March 23, 2016. “I would not have graduated if I did not get sober,” she says.
Once sober, she became much more aware of the College of Charleston community. “When I was drinking and doing drugs, my world was so small, and I didn’t even realize how many amazing, awesome things were going on campus. But since getting sober, I have been so much more involved in my community,” she says.
A dance and arts management major, she was able to choreograph a piece for College of Charleston’s spring dance production, something she would not have been able to do while being in active addiction. She also realized she had a wider support base than she thought: “A lot of kids do party, but a lot of kids aren’t big drinkers, and those are the kinds of people I gravitate toward to hang out and build relationships with. … Finding an extracurricular or a club that isn’t centered around partying is really important to sober kids because they can then relate to their peers in a healthy way.
“Everyone has their own journey, and at the end of the day, college doesn’t have to be a four-year, 18- to 22-year old experience. A lot of people wait to go to school or end up getting sober and going back to school after getting back on their feet. We shouldn’t define a ‘normal’ experience in higher education.”
As a college prep school student, Tyler Vance saw a lot of drug use. “It was more common than not,” he says. By the time he left to attend the University of Georgia (UGA), he was smoking what he describes as “copious amounts of pot.” He checked into dorm living and traded marijuana for alcohol because the access was easier. He had been near the top of his high school class; now, he could barely earn a credit at UGA because of his drinking. He bottomed out at university but also found his path to recovery there.
Now graduated with two additional degrees, Vance experienced both the “party” scene of UGA and its sober side. “I can honestly say that I had much more fun than I did when I was drinking. For me, many of the events I attended revolved around drinking and not around the actual experience.
Additionally, I learned that the crowd I would drink and do drugs with was not representative of the university as a whole. There are many people who would drink casually or not at all.”
Where once he would drink or do drugs alone, which made him feel lonely and demoralized, he embraced sobriety with others. He joined UGA’s collegiate recovery community on his first full day of sobriety “and was instantly plugged into a group of great people who cared about me,” he says.
He adds that the UGA campus is large enough that students can find what interests them or there are resources to create a club or program geared to their passions. “On my first fall semester back [following recovery], I checked out a bunch of clubs and was a member of the American Marketing Association. By springtime, I decided my time could be split between school, my social life and a 12-step fellowship.
“[The 12-step fellowship] has become my social component and has been extremely rewarding. I was blessed to have gone to a college town known for its partying. Usually around hard partiers is a large recovery network. This was the case in Athens. [My 12-step fellowship] is vast and filled with young people.”
The Best Advice College Students Never Hear
“If you’re attending an event with a lot of substance use, have an escape plan. This basically means having your own means to get home. … I would also suggest bringing a sober buddy along with you for accountability.” — Carly M.
“Seek out colleges and universities that have thriving collegiate recovery programs. Reach out to the programs at those schools, and, if possible, set up a visit to see what a collegiate recovery program has to offer. A lot of collegiate recovery programs host frequent sober social events on campus.” — Andrew Caryl
“Find that community of kids who are already sober. It will help give you the strength that you need to stay sober. Get back to what you liked to do before you started drinking and drugging. Also, discover new things you like by trying new things and meeting new people. Be open about your sobriety. People will respect you for what is going on in your life.” — Victoria Weber
“We can’t really recover alone. You have to have people who understand what you’re going through. Do the work to find people to support you. My favorite motto is ‘We Recover Together.’” — Trevor Gates
“As long as you know who you are and are confident in your recovery, then you can do anything sober that a ‘normal’ college kid can do.” — Ashleigh Smith
“By no means am I saying one should have life figured out by the time one graduates. Use college as a journey to better understand your values, personality, interests, characteristics and character. That information could be more valuable to your daily life than any class, although some classes also help facilitate that increase of self-knowledge.” — Tyler Vance