Building a Nation of Leaders

Students from around the U.S. gathered in Washington, D.C., in November for the inaugural Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Recovery Leadership Summit.


The Collegiate Recovery Leadership Academy connects students in recovery from coast to coast and pairs them with mentors to further the growth of recovery initiatives across the nation.

Across the nation, students are working to maintain their recovery and to build a community on campus that is supportive of those living a life of sobriety. However, for many of them, they are working in a vacuum without clear lines of communication to connect with fellow students on other campuses to brainstorm, network or share knowledge.

Connection is key to building sustainable, thriving campus recovery programs. In 2018, the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) and S.A.F.E. (Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic) Project joined forces to make those connections happen through the Collegiate Recovery Leadership Academy. Their goal?

To provide college students in or seeking recovery assistance for substance use disorders with the knowledge to create and strengthen efforts on their campuses and train them to be effective leaders. By strengthening ties to initiatives across the nation and empowering students, ARHE and S.A.F.E. Project aim to grow the number of campus recovery programs and recovery-related services on campuses nationwide.

And save lives.


“Our son, Jonathan, entered college life at a vulnerable point in his recovery, without a supportive community on campus, and we lost him three days into his freshman year,” says Admiral James Winnefeld, who, along with his wife, Mary, co-founded S.A.F.E. Project to identify critical gaps like this in recovery. “The academy will make a major contribution to our joint effort with ARHE in strengthening and supporting students in recovery, helping them eliminate stigma, and empowering them to redirect their lives.”

Adds Tim Rabolt, ARHE executive director: “We wanted to do something that truly will make an impact on collegiate recovery and support students in recovery. We realized that there was a disconnect: There were students in recovery across the country, but there was nothing bringing them all together in one place. Sometimes, these students do not have the resources or support to push their efforts a little further. In some cases, their work on campus might be the first opportunity they have to get involved with the field. The academy makes those connections and provides that support.”

The academy is open to any college student who is not graduating in the academic year in which they are admitted. “The student does not necessarily have to be in recovery,” Rabolt says. “It is also open to allies who are involved in collegiate recovery and demonstrate an interest in the values that we’re trying to instill, such as leadership, service.”

This year, approximately 60 students from 25 states were accepted into the academy, which gives them the opportunity to participate in a yearlong program that will have a direct impact on collegiate recovery on their campus and in their communities. Through networking events and mentorship, students are taught the power of servant leadership — a philosophy that focuses on serving others first and exercising leadership second. They learn how to foster these leadership traits as well as gain insight into their personal strengths. Then, they use these strengths to support themselves and others in recovery.

The former chief of staff for President Barak Obama, Denis McDonough, gave a keynote address on leadership at the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Recovery Leadership Summit.

“Students listen more to other students than they do to adults,” Rabolt says. “They understand one another’s perspective and speak one another’s language. They are the experts about what can and will make a difference on their campuses. Having student leaders inform the development and growth of a CRP will hopefully encourage other students to get involved and ultimately can make for a more recovery-friendly environment.”


During the year, each student will design and execute an impact project to improve collegiate recovery supports, policies or perception on a local, regional or national level. Some project examples include policy promotion, research, anti-stigma campaigns, Narcan training for students or training to increase a positive recovery environment on campus. Members are paired with mentors who help guide them as the project is implemented. Throughout the year, students will have continual check-ins with their mentors and academy staff. As they work on their chosen project, the students will build their self-confidence and leadership skills as they gain practical experience with guidance from being paired with a mentor who has impacted the recovery community and demonstrates servant leadership skills.

The students will present the results of their projects at the 10th National Collegiate Recovery Conference in Boston from June 29 to July 2, 2019.

“Mentors were selected for their outstanding work in the recovery field — from treatment centers, government agencies, nonprofits — who we felt could build a relationship with students and serve as an informal project adviser,” Rabolt says.

Students attend an ARHE/SAFE Regional Summit, which are open to all students interested in collegiate recovery, not just members of the academy. The summits — which feature keynote speakers, interactive workshops, roundtables and open discussions — are designed to be a catalyst for networking, personal growth and increasing students’ knowledge base. Topics presented center on collegiate recovery, leadership and service. The workshops and training focus on advocacy, messaging aspects of social justice and innovative approaches that various campuses are taking in collegiate recovery.

The first summit was in November in Washington, D.C. Upcoming events are in Keystone, Colorado, and at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. S.A.F.E. Project provides student scholarships to help cover travel-related expenses for the weekend events for academy members.

“We want to let the students know that leadership does not have to be standing at the top of a roof with a megaphone,” Rabolt says. “The students in attendance at these events will come away with an understanding of the types of leadership styles and the benefits of exploring the many ways that one can become a leader. This will empower them to make a difference.”

Tom Hill, vice president of practice improvement at the National Council for Behavioral Health, leads a breakout session on leadership.


Jesse Harvey, who is pursuing a master’s degree in policy, planning and management at the University of Southern Maine, is no novice to the recovery field. He is the director and founder of Journey House, which provides recovery-oriented, evidence-based and peer-run housing as well as peer support and advocacy for individuals with substance use disorders in Maine. He also is teaching a recovery coach academy at the university’s collegiate recovery program, which he joined when it was established about two years ago.

But he still has more to learn.

“Collegiate recovery is one of the only areas of recovery that I’m not as familiar with,” he says. “As I learn more, I can apply that knowledge to my other areas of focus, like harm reduction.”

As the founder of four recovery houses, Harvey would like to apply what he learns at the academy to opening a collegiate recovery house.

For his impact project, Harvey will focus on breaking down the “silo effect” he sees in recovery by networking and getting various groups to work together for the common goal of promoting a successful life in recovery. He is looking forward to working with his mentor, Tom Hill, vice president of practice improvement at the National Council for Behavioral Health, whom he has met previously at other conferences.

Harvey says attending the Washington, D.C., summit held in November was a productive first start in his mission. “I came away with a lot of strong relationships from meeting students and mentors from across the nation,” he says. “I returned home more interested in doing harm reduction work and increasing diversity and inclusion in collegiate recovery.”

Sherri Ahern, who is in her second year of graduate school at Florida International University, also returned from the November summit with a renewed vigor. Although FIU has a student organization that offers events such as sober tailgates and movie nights, there is no collegiate recovery program yet. Ahern, who had attended past ARHE conferences, says she applied to the academy to tap into the wealth of knowledge that the national organization could offer.

“To move forward in establishing a more formal collegiate recovery presence at FIU, I knew I needed to be a part of a national community,” she says. “As a member of the academy, I now have every resource possible to succeed in addition to the opportunity to network and make friends. ARHE and S.A.F.E. Project did a tremendous job.”

Although Ahern expected to have speakers and breakout sessions at the summit, she says she didn’t realize how intense the experience would be. “Things got very emotional at times,” she says. “We talked about our successes and our frustrations at getting things off the ground. The academy is a great way to connect with people across the country. We all saw that we are not alone and there are more people out there doing what we’re doing. They’re trying just as hard as we are to get things rolling at their school, but now we all have a really strong network that allows us to talk to one another and use one another as resources.”

She also stressed the importance of the program’s mentor component and is excited to work with Teresa Johnston, the founding director of the Kennesaw State University Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery. “Often, we are not sure about the direction we should take and do not have anyone on campus who we can ask,” she says. “There is so much I can learn from Teresa.”

Ahern, like Harvey, is focused on improving diversity as well as removing the stigma of seeking a life in recovery. “I want to make it easier for students to access recovery resources,” she says. “Also, I’d like to focus on veterans, who I believe are often forgotten. My dad is a veteran, so that population is close to my heart. With the support of the academy, I have the tools I need to give these students the recovery community that will help them live the life they seek.”

For more information on the Collegiate Recovery Leadership Academy, visit

Side Note

National Campus Recovery Goal

Admiral James Winnefeld, co-founder of S.A.F.E. Project, discusses the importance of having a presence for recovery on every campus.

Recovery Campus: Discuss the importance of supportive communities to students in recovery.

Admiral Winnefeld: There are several reasons for campuses to have solid recovery programs. Obviously, a number of incoming students will already be in recovery and will need the support. It is also very likely that some students will become substance dependent while at school, will gain treatment and then will need support in recovery. Also, having a strong and visible recovery program on campus will naturally educate the rest of the student body, reduce stigma, and demonstrate that recovery is possible and addiction is a disease, not a moral failing.

RC: What is your vision for the S.A.F.E. Campuses initiative?

Admiral Winnefeld: Our priority is recovery. We encourage schools that don’t have a recovery program to develop one and encourage schools that already have one to ensure their programs achieve and sustain high quality. To that end, we will make available best practices and benchmarks, as well as sponsoring the leadership academy. Our efforts will hopefully expand into ensuring the availability of the lifesaving drug naloxone as well as enhancing campus prevention efforts.

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