Creating a Culture of Recovery

With a firm understanding of its collegiate culture, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University has created a recovery community that speaks its students’ language.

Each institution of higher learning has a unique stamp, a campus society that often is steeped in the values and culture of the students being educated. Understanding and being sensitive to the fabric of this society can make a major difference in how well a collegiate recovery community resonates with young adults.

In a matter of a few short years, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University — one of just over 100 historically black colleges and universities in the nation — has become a model for engaging students at risk in a culturally sensitive way and steering them toward a life in recovery.

In 2014, the University of North Carolina System selected North Carolina A&T as one of six schools to receive a grant from the state Department of Health and Human Services to start a collegiate recovery community (CRC). Launched in 2015, the CRC was folded into the Counseling Services department for sustainability and was promoted in a similar way as other collegiate mental health services: through flyers, social media, outreach to faculty and staff, email blasts, and tabling events. Incoming students and their parents learned about the program through presentations at orientation. In addition, Counseling Services created a dedicated space in the health center that is open to anyone who wants to have time alone, get advice or just be among like-minded individuals.

“We offered substance abuse counseling prior to the grant, and our services remain open to anyone who has concerns about substance use,” says Vivian Barnette, Counseling Services executive director. “On our campus, we do not have many students who have gone to recovery treatment and released to school, so we make collegiate recovery broad.”

Dominiquie M. Clemmons-James, the collegiate recovery community coordinator, reports a dearth of information as the “largest and most consistent barrier” the counselors face on campus. “Many students do not have the language surrounding addiction due to self-interpretation. They may think, ‘Using substances is just something I do when I’m stressed, when I’m bored or to help me sleep,’” she says. “The difficulty with self-interpretations such as these is that when symptoms of addiction occur, they have no explanation but still continue to use.”

Barnette notes students also have to combat the stigma that goes along with not being able to participate with peers in activities and having to seek help. “The students are not readily able to determine what is normal versus problematic use of substances,” she says. “Some students can have a drink and not have a problem. For others, drinking significantly impacts their lives. This is one reason why we connected with the dean of students. When a student violates the code of conduct, we assess if that student has addictive behaviors. If so, we can connect them with collegiate recovery to learn how to lead a cleaner, sober life. This takes some of the help-seeking barriers out of the equation.”

Meeting Students Where They Are

When approaching a student who has come to them for assistance, counselors make it a point to validate the student’s beliefs regarding recovery and help-seeking before they expand upon those beliefs. “Some beliefs students have are self-taught; some are cultural. We don’t want them to think badly about what they might have learned in the past,” Barnette says. “Many, for example, believe in the power of prayer, which can extend into meditation and mindfulness. So, we assure them that these activities definitely help in recovery but should be used in conjunction with professional tools. We want them to know they have other resources they can draw upon.”

Clemmons-James notes that many on the staff identify with the emphasis on prayer-driven solutions from their own upbringing. They connect with students on that commonality and then share what they’ve learned about other resources. “Forming these bonds with students makes it easier to encourage help-seeking behaviors as well as educate our campus population regarding recovery and how it can look,” she says.

Understanding a student’s culture and approach to personal issues is important to laying a counseling foundation. “In the beginning, our students engage in a lot of storytelling to make sure the clinician can be trusted,” Barnette says. “Counselors may have to spend a lot of time getting to know the student before they get to the treatment. They must be aware that just because a student is talking to them, it does not mean that they are ready to enter clinical treatment. They may just be checking out the counselors to see if they could work with them.”

Because Counseling Services provides 12-step meetings and SMART Recovery sessions as part of other services, students in the recovery program don’t stand out. “They could be coming to us for counseling on their careers, personal issues, academic skills training or stress management — no one has to know they are discussing recovery,” Barnette says. “We get a full snapshot of the students through our intake paperwork, learning if they smoke, drink, gamble or have suicidal thoughts, so we can counsel them accordingly.”

If students can’t afford to go to intensive inpatient treatment centers, counselors connect them to local outpatient treatment groups.

The CRC has found success in making programming and outreach inclusive. “The culture of our campus is social in nature, and students prefer to do things in groups as opposed to individually self-identifying as having an interest in specific concepts — like recovery, addiction or wellness,” Clemmons-James says. “As a result, we make an effort to include allies as well as those whose lives have been affected by addiction and those who just want to live a wellness lifestyle.”

In a nod to this social culture, part of the funding was used to create the Street Team, a group of trained student peers who host regular tabling events and other activities and make referrals. “This is successful because peers can talk to peers in a way that helps them connect to professional mental health providers,” Barnette says.

To further boost awareness, the CRC has reached out to the popular Greek community for opportunities to speak about collegiate recovery, such as teaming with members during events or setting up information tables at the houses. “Greek life on campus has a large following — even those who are not interested in joining know about their events or have friends who are affiliated,” Clemmons-James says. “We encourage partnerships with Greek life and other student organizations, such as Campus Recreation, the Psychology Club and the Rehabilitation Counseling Association, to increase our reach and effectiveness in spreading the message of recovery.”

The CRC also partners with student organizations such as Active Minds, a peer advocacy group that seeks to bring awareness and remove the stigma of mental illness, the Student Health Advisory Council and the Counseling Services Advisory Council — “Anyone who is willing to have us come and share information,” Barnette says.

Celebrating Sober Life on Campus

Throughout campus, one can see how students, faculty and staff embrace sober living as they wear the CRC’s signature “Party Sober” T-shirts. “They blend with the university logo and have our phone number and information on where to go for collegiate recovery written down the sleeve,” Barnette says. “Everything we give out has information on how to contact us.”

The CRC also provides many opportunities for social engagement. For example, the Second Chance Prom allows students who missed their high school prom due to substance use to have this experience. Sober tailgating and sober spring break provide alternatives to these quintessential college activities. Even the school’s self-proclaimed “Greatest Homecoming on Earth” has a substance-free version.

“We show the students that they can still have a lot of fun without being around people who are doing things that would not be in their best interest,” Barnette says. “We realize that some students of legal age can drink socially, have fun and not have any issues. Although our students should not be around this environment, it doesn’t mean they should miss out on what they think of as a ‘normal’ college life. They need to learn that they can manage their own way in this world without getting into negative life-altering problems associated with substance use problems.”

Written by Patti Zielinski

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