Vanderbilt Recovery Support
An unimaginable growth
In the past year, Vanderbilt Recovery Support (VRS) has become a vibrant Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) experiencing an unimaginable evolution after re-dedicating itself to inclusivity.
The program has attracted so many new members that it has outgrown its 2007 space—the year it all started.
Back then, faculty member Andy Finch, who previously founded and ran a recovery high school in Nashville, was doing research on addiction. Together with a Vanderbilt graduate student, they founded VRS to provide assistance to students in recovery from substance use issues. Since its onset, VRS has never been a closed meeting—or only accessible to those who identify as addicts—even though it was housed under the Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention. Instead it has welcomed students with eating disorders, other mental health concerns, or those with an interest in the recovery lifestyle.
A 2012 name change for the host office to The Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education reflects this “more holistic view of health,” says current Student Wellbeing Coordinator Katherine Drotos Cuthbert. Drotos Cuthbert is the advisor for VRS and helped create the first recovery housing on Vanderbilt’s campus three years ago, a critical component of several VRS members’ recovery.
In this role, she meets with students weekly, develops campus-wide programming, and advocates for students in recovery. She also leads the VRS advisory board, which consists of administrators and graduate students whose sole focus is the
CRP. Drotos Cuthbert goes above and beyond the typical administrator role—she is a “compassionate ally and thoughtful leader,” says current graduate student and group facilitator Nico Doorn.
This year at the annual Rites of Spring music festival, VRS had a booth with yellow balloons, a beacon of hope for anyone attempting sobriety at the substance-fueled festival. Drotos Cuthbert led the charge in handing out 1,500 water bottles each night. She kept spirits up with her determination to hydrate as many college kids as possible, commenting that she had never seen individuals so grateful for water. I participated as well, realizing that I had never been so grateful myself to have the safety net of the VRS booth, to have the chance to experience Rites of Spring sober for the first time.
I appreciate how the Vanderbilt administration is there to aid, not police the CRP. At the weekly meetings, despite the presence of graduate assistants—individuals completing a masters in counseling program—students feel safe sharing about all aspects of their recovery. There is a non-judgmental air in the room, an unconditional support for one another, regardless of academic position or amount of clean time.
Doorn emphasizes that a big difference between VRS and traditional 12-Step meetings is that the students have the rare opportunity to bond over their common experiences in both academics and recovery. They become “close and share more personally,” he says.
“I loved connecting with a group of people who weren’t afraid to share the vulnerabilities and challenges of being in a high-stress academic and social environment,” says Aubree H., the graduate assistant from August 2013 to May 2015. Despite prior work experience with addiction programs, Aubree had never witnessed the recovery lifestyle blending with the collegiate, especially not in a university-sponsored program. It became one of her favorite parts of the Vanderbilt experience.
“Being a part of VRS reminded me that, even though I was studying at a rigorous institution, it was okay to take care of myself. VRS was exactly the caring community that I needed,” she says.
Doorn echoes this sentiment. “VRS provides a sense of community and closeness that wouldn’t otherwise be available in my academic cohort.”
In my personal experience with Vanderbilt Recovery Support, “support” has always been the key component. My first interaction with the CRP came at the start of the fall 2014 semester when my therapist at the Vanderbilt Psychological and Counseling Center suggested I check it out. For the first official meeting of the school year, I ventured to the basement of a campus dorm to find 15 students packed into a tiny room.
The meeting space was dark and tight, resembling more of a renovated walk-in closet than a gathering space. The school had adorned it with a black couch and chairs, mini fridge, television, and a shelf of recovery literature. Cinema-themed décor on the walls hinted at a past life for the space.
As each student introduced themselves, I recognized people I had used with. Here I was, a 19-year-old convinced that I was just the average college student, misunderstood by my parents. To see others I had also considered the typical student sitting in that room made me reconsider my self-ascribed status.
When they shared, I heard myself in their stories, a feeling I would encounter again upon reading through the Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text for the first time. As a transfer student from a much bigger and much easier college, I had never felt like I belonged. I loved everything about Vandy—it had been my dream school for years—but I was suffering from major imposter syndrome. I became a self-fulfilling prophecy; convinced that I would fail, I set myself up to. This path of self-destruction fueled a lot of my using, and apparently, other Vanderbilt kids felt the same.
In that cramped meeting room, I found my first home in the recovery world. Each week, we would relax on bean bags and sip juice boxes, as senior Mike chaired. Often, in the fellowship—hanging out and catching up—that preceded the official start of meetings, a topic would reveal itself. It didn’t necessarily have to be about drugs or alcohol, but it was always related to recovery. Like a 12-Step meeting, we would take turns sharing for the majority of the hour.
However, the meetings were small, usually bringing in a weekly rotation of only five students. In May 2015, with several key players graduating, attendance was down to one to three people. I met the new VRS facilitator, Doorn, at a summer meeting where no one else came. We shared back and forth for the hour, two people at major times of transition in their lives. I was finishing up my second month of intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), learning what it meant to really dedicate myself to a program. Doorn shared not only his goals for the group, but his hesitations about starting both grad school and a new job.
My fears about VRS dying out were quickly erased by the arrival of fresh blood. Full of that same fire that many talk about in the early days of sobriety, Doorn proved that it works if you work it. VRS became “less about maintaining my sobriety and more about enhancing my recovery,” he says.
He invited friends in the Nashville recovery community to scope out the hidden gem at Vandy. As the heat rose, so did the popularity of VRS. We were flooded with students from other colleges in the area, and later, college-aged individuals who weren’t currently in school.
By July, we couldn’t fit in the basement meeting room anymore.
“VRS has grown more than any other meeting I know of in the past year and a half. It’s a complete transformation,” says student and active member Naresh N. For the start of the academic year, we found a new home in a dorm classroom. This central location, combined with word of mouth, led to an unprecedented attendance of up to 30 people.
Doorn also introduced a much-needed format revamping. Presently, the meeting opens with a foreword that explains the group’s structure and purpose, especially helpful for the newcomer since VRS is not a conventional 12-Step meeting and is geared toward college students. We take a long moment of silence—five minutes to be exact—where meditation is encouraged, but not required. Someone reads the reflection from the “Just for Today” literature, and the meeting is opened for sharing.
“Now, it feels like a real meeting where I can contribute, be heard, and hear a solid message,” Naresh adds.
The rapid growth of VRS and the staff expressing a need inspired the Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education to create a Tuesday noon meeting. Originally, the meeting was aimed at professionals in the Medical Center; however, wanting to draw in more undergraduates, the noon meeting location was moved from the Medical Arts Building to the main student center. It follows the same format as the Thursday meeting, but its attendees can fit neatly around a small conference table.
An older crowd of professionals created a home base at the Tuesday meeting that aids the growth of an unusual relationship for CRP members. One Vandy student might share about his relationship with his parents, and then a faculty member or hospital employee will offer wisdom about dealing with his or her own kids. When I attend both meetings, I am humbled and lucky to bear witness to raw, transforming shares.
The university is witnessing the positive transformation as well. The Office of Wellness Programs and Alcohol Education will become the Center for Student Wellbeing in the fall. In this free-standing building with expanded services, the new VRS lounge will be housed in the largest room of the renovated house.
“The university is prioritizing the needs of students in recovery,” says Drotos Cuthbert. This attention will provide a much-needed visibility boost to a student population that, despite being ranked the happiest in the country, was impacted by both a student suicide and drug overdose during the previous finals week.
In addition, Doorn is taking on the new position of a graduate assistant whose sole focus is working with Drotos Cuthbert to expand the growth of VRS even further. This is a natural step for the facilitator who has dedicated so much of his time and passion to the group’s development.
This past April, Drotos Cuthbert and Doorn led a group of VRS members, including me, to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) conference in Atlanta. We came back inspired by the great work that other CRPs were carrying out, and the Center for Student Wellbeing is now creating seminars for VRS members. Drotos Cuthbert also hopes to create a scholarship for students in recovery housing or long-term recovery.
Jules Wilson is a senior studying English with a Creative Writing focus and a minor in Women and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt University.
She hopes to find a way to combine her passions for writing and advocacy in her post-graduate career. You can read her blog at findingthejulesoflife.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.