Collegiate Recovery on the Small College Campus

Sharing the experience of building a CRC at Washington and Lee

Joshua Gross, PRSS; Graham Pergande ’20; Katie Evans ’22; Kirk Luder, MD, University Psychiatrist

In recent years, collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) have developed rapidly across the United States as higher education institutions recognize the need to support students in recovery from substance use problems.

The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), a national coalition committed to supporting this movement, has seen its membership expand to 138 colleges and universities since it was founded in 2011. Despite rapid growth across the country and evolving standards of care for supporting students with substance use problems, small colleges and universities face unique challenges in developing their own CRCs. Smaller student populations make it inherently more difficult to achieve the critical mass of students needed to form a viable peer support community. Additionally, the stigmatization of substance use disorders can prevent students from identifying themselves to their peers at any college, but especially on campuses where ‘everyone knows everyone.’ In all CRCs, student participation fluctuates, and while larger university CRCs might be able to weather changes in participation and commitment, CRCs at smaller schools face great uncertainty and risk of collapse as these factors change. As a result, almost all of the small college members of ARHE report having difficulty maintaining active support for students in recovery which is a considerable concern as a consistent and visible presence on campus is key to keeping a CRC alive.

Our experience at Washington and Lee University is an exception to the national trend, as there is now a sizeable and active collegiate recovery program that is working to serve students in recovery. Since many small colleges are in the early stages of developing CRCs and there is a dearth of published research on developing CRCs in this setting, we wanted to share our experience of what seems to be working. Washington and Lee University is a small school located in the rural Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, and has about 1,800 undergraduates and 400 law students. Participation in the CRC, dubbed the Washingtonian Society, ranges from about 30-50 students, with 12-25 students attending the main weekly support group. The Washingtonian Society—named in part after a Baltimore-based 19th century precursor to AA called the Washingtonian Movement—began as a weekly support group facilitated by staff from the college counseling service. Initially, the group consisted of  only a few students who met in a secret, off-campus location to protect student anonymity. After receiving a Transforming Youth Recovery grant in 2015, the group began meeting on campus and attracted a few more members who continued to meet in a discreet, unadvertised location.

In 2017, the University recognized a need to provide a safe and supportive living space for students in recovery, and an on-campus student recovery residence was opened for the 2017-18 school year. Located in a former faculty home at the edge of campus, the two-story house has living space for four students in recovery on the second floor, with the first floor used as a common area for residents and as a base for the larger Washingtonian Society CRC. Devoting the resources to this recovery residence and home base for the CRC was vital to the continued growth of the Washingtonian Society. It provided students in the recovery program a safe and comfortable place to gather and hang out together, and gave the CRC a physical presence on campus that increased awareness about the group and attracted many new participants. The planning of this house had the aim to make it a highly enjoyable and accessible space for students in recovery to live and socialize. The first-floor common area has a pool table, ping-pong table, two big-screen TVs with multiple video game consoles, Wi-Fi and cable, lots of board games, a quiet study room, comfortable couches, and a mini-fridge that is always stocked with cans of LaCroix. This environment helped the “Washingtonian House” become a favorite place for students to spend their free time and for students to form social connections in a recovery context.

While the importance of a dedicated on-campus home base to the success of the CRC is hard to overstate, another crucial decision was made early in program development that helped it thrive; we used an expanded definition of ‘recovery’ to include both students who self-identified as having substance-use disorders and were pursuing abstinence-based recovery, along with students who recognized that their alcohol or substance use as problematic, but weren’t ready to commit to full long-term abstinence. The Washingtonian Society, then, is a “blended” CRC, meaning students are not required to commit to complete abstinence from alcohol and substance use in order to participate. This kind of decision is quite controversial in collegiate recovery circles; many recovery experts argue passionately that mixing abstinence-recovery students with those having harm reduction as their primary goal has the potential to interfere with the recovery of students committed to full abstinence by triggering craving, increasing access to substance-using peers, and risking unhealthy collusion with the harm-reduction group. Many also express concern that allowing participation of students not fully committed to abstinence is fraught with the possibility of enabling substance use disorders, essentially fostering denial of substance use problems and reducing student motivation for change. It’s not really recovery, the thinking goes, unless an individual is fully committed to long-term abstinence.

This has not been our experience.  While initially this decision was borne of a practical concern for the viability of the CRC—with our small campus population we believed the CRC needed to have a larger base of students to be viable—in our experience the blended model has produced clearly more benefit than risk. Many of the students who initially come into the group with limited insight and motivation for change are positively impacted by hearing the experiences and counsel of peers further along in their own recovery, with the harm-reduction students developing improved awareness of the progression of their own substance use problem and discovering new motivation to pursue real change. Many who initially attend the weekly open support group with no intention of abstaining, later decide to pursue long-term abstinence. Students who are further along in recovery have naturally adopted a mentor role with newer students in ways that benefit both, as the more experienced, abstinence-committed students find the mentor role fulfilling and helpful in their own recovery growth.

This is an excerpt from a longer piece which will be published in an upcoming issue of Recovery Campus Magazine. For more information reach Dr. Kirt Luder

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