The University of Texas at San Antonio
Creating a home for recovery
A college campus can be a strange place for a student in recovery. For Clayton Sponhaltz, it was hard to bridge the gap between the world of recovery he found in 2003 and the collegiate world he wanted to be a part of at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA).
“I basically had a commuter-type experience,” Sponhaltz says, reflecting on his undergraduate career. During his studies, there was no organized community for students in recovery on campus.
After receiving a degree in psychology from UTSA in 2008, Sponhaltz says a friend suggested that he pursue a clinical internship. Though he had never dreamed of being a drug and alcohol counselor, he says he was in a position of trusting and relying on God. Instructed to go home and pray about the decision, Sponhaltz says he did just that, and something about it felt right. He completed a two-year internship at La Hacienda in the Hill Country, the same treatment center he attended when he began his own recovery journey. It was there, working with collegiate men, that Sponhaltz says he realized how wonderful collegiate recovery could be.
Inspired by these young men, Sponhaltz remembered the lack of support he felt when he was a student at UTSA. He asked for the curriculum from Texas Tech University’s Collegiate Recovery Center and contacted UTSA in 2011 about starting a center there. However, it wasn’t until the University of Texas System Board of Regents, motivated by the success of UT Austin’s Center for Students in Recovery, approved the expansion of centers for recovery to eight other campuses that UTSA saw the program come to life in 2014.
Now a licensed chemical dependency counselor and the assistant director of UTSA’s Center for Collegiate Recovery (CCR), Sponhaltz has seen the CCR evolve from an idea into a reality. Housed in UTSA’s Recreation and Wellness Center, the CCR symbolizes a solution that meets students right where they are on the recovery pathway. The CCR began with five students, and it has grown to include 15. Though Sponhaltz is encouraged by this quick growth, he says the most important thing is being able to take care of who’s already there.
“A lot of our students got sober here,” Sponhaltz says. “It was important to be an open community that didn’t hold one brand of recovery.”
Thus, the CCR has taken the form that was needed by its students, supporting each individual’s needs and goals. Through his clinical experience working with young adults, Sponhaltz says the solution is more important than the form it takes. Instead of mandating a certain type of recovery, the CCR works with each student individually, making sure each is aware of the resources available and helping each to find community.
“We have already outgrown our space,” Sponhaltz says. “That is a really good problem to have.”
He says he hopes the program continues to attract students in need of a recovery community, but more importantly, he wants to see the CCR move from a clinical student health approach to an association with campus life that places it right in the middle of the UTSA collegiate experience.
“Just by putting up signs on a college campus, we are literally carrying the message that there is a way out,” he says.
The CCR maintains different levels of programming based on individual needs. The Early Recovery Program is aimed toward students in the “gray area” of substance abuse who are unfamiliar with what recovery looks like. Students at this level receive individual counseling and personalized recovery plans that immerse them in the recovery community.
For students with less than 90 days of continuous recovery, the CCR offers the Bridge Program, which pairs them with peer mentors and offers educational classes on relapse prevention.
Once students become committed to the CCR, they are eligible for scholarships and are encouraged to pursue student leadership roles on campus. Many CCR students hold elected positions in Students for Recovery, a student organization under the umbrella of the CCR that engages in campus outreach and advocacy work.
“The students get out what they put in,” Sponhaltz says.
This fall, the CCR will open its own recovery housing. A five-minute walk from the CCR, Alvarez Hall is the newest residence hall on UTSA’s campus. Sponhaltz says they have been working with the Office of Housing and Residence Life for nearly a year, outlining the differences between recovery housing and substance-free housing. In August, Alvarez Hall will welcome students to its designated recovery housing area, which will have its own resident assistant who has completed training specific to recovery. Sponhaltz says one of the biggest advantages of this step is that UTSA amended its housing application to include an option for recovery housing, meaning that all incoming freshman will be aware of this unique opportunity. To be eligible for this housing, students must sign an agreement stating that any relapse or return to use will result in immediate dismissal from the residence.
Amidst the exciting growth, CCR students say they are grateful to have a home on campus. Matt Hinojosa, a junior studying anthropology and Chicana/o Studies, just finished his first semester as a member of the CCR. After leaving UTSA to attend a local community college during active addiction, Hinojosa says he was directionless.
“Before all of this, I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “Now, with the grace of my higher power and the blessing manifesting as Clayton, the CCR, our community, and the countless doors they’ve all opened, and so graciously put their names on the line for, I’m privileged to say I’ve built something decent for myself on campus and around town. They’ve empowered me to empower others.”
Hinojosa says a counselor he was seeing introduced him to the CCR, and when he met Sponhaltz, they immediately “clicked.”
“It’s since been a platform to propel myself, and everyone involved, forward—academically, professionally, spiritually,” he says.
For Hinojosa, the importance of the CCR lies in its ability to impact others. “The ultimate goal is to tackle the stigma on campus and really get the good word out, for students in or seeking recovery, and to empower the disempowered,” he says.
Despite the exciting changes ahead, Sponhaltz emphasizes the importance of focusing on the present.
“When I get a chance to reflect, it’s awesome,” Sponhaltz says. “The biggest lesson that I learned is that you can be good regardless of what other people do or do not do. When we focus on who’s here and welcoming those who come in, there’s not much else that matters.”
Though the CCR received funding for a staff position from the University of Texas System, all other expenses are funded by donors. Sponhaltz hopes that the school will recognize the success of the program and allocate funding for its maintenance. Until then, he says he and the students will remain grateful for the wonderful community the CCR represents.