An Investment in Students in Recovery
A scholarship funded by La Hacienda Treatment Center at the University of Texas at Austin provides validation and renewed hope for promising students
By Patti Zielinski
Sometimes a university scholarship transcends its monetary value. For the past 15 years, La Hacienda Treatment Center in Hunt, Texas, has funded scholarships to over 100 students in recovery at the University of Texas at Austin. Administered through the university’s financial aid office, the scholarships serve as a validation of the effort these students expend in succeeding and in their new lives in recovery.
“Receiving a scholarship because I’m a person in recovery is a true honor,” says Tiffany Cunningham, a senior majoring in psychology who has been awarded the scholarship four times based on her commitment to recovery, her service to the collegiate recovery community and her dedication to academics. “You know returning to school will be hard, that remaining in recovery will be hard, that you think you might burn out, but having this emotional and monetary support from the school and private organizations gives students like me the momentum to keep moving forward.”
Cunningham, in her late thirties with a full time job, notes that the scholarships have allowed her to work one less eight-hour shift a week, giving her more time for her studies. “This is incredibly impactful and also helps me with my work/life balance,” she says. After graduation, she will continue on to pursue a master’s degree in social work.
At this year’s Association of Recovery in Higher Education conference, La Hacienda received the Collegiate Recovery Philanthropists of the Year Award. As Sherri Layton, La Hacienda’s outpatient services administrator, accepted the award on behalf of the Center, she encouraged other collegiate recovery program leaders in attendance to reach out to treatment centers for financial support stressing that treatment programs should become more aware and involved with collegiate recovery communities. “Many treatment centers are still unfamiliar with the student recovery support centers. We have created a beautiful partnership and feel included in what the university program is doing,” she says. “Besides providing a scholarship to current students, this relationship has given us greater awareness and has benefited our patients who have a desire to return to the college environment.”
The owners and staff at La Hacienda, which has specialized programming for 18 to 24 year olds as part of their overall treatment services and has outpatient centers near higher education institutions in Austin and College Station, are keenly aware that an investment in a student’s education is also an investment in their commitment to recovery.
“This kind of support is rare in collegiate recovery,” says Sierra Castedo de Martell, former director at the Center for Students in Recovery at the University of Texas at Austin and President Elect, Association of Recovery in Higher Education, who nominated La Hacienda for the award. “The consistency, the length of time and the humility with which this has been given is unprecedented. La Hacienda has quietly been one of the most steadfast supporters of collegiate recovery in this country.”
Castedo de Martell says such an investment by schools and private supporters makes sense since studies have shown that students in recovery have higher grade point averages than the overall student population. “Students who are getting ongoing support for their recovery are going to do better than students who are not,” she explains.
She notes that many in the collegiate recovery program, Center for Students in Recovery, are students like Cunningham who have returned to school after an interrupted academic career. “When you have interruptions, students often lose access to scholarships, so this scholarship is especially important for non-traditional students.”
“Centers for student recovery are about the fullness of life. The lost dreams of college education and careers can be recaptured,” says Layton. “We want young people in recovery to know about the centers on college campuses. We want them to know that they can return to school and complete their higher education and have this support.”
The scholarship application is emailed to students who are active in the collegiate recovery community two weeks before the end of semester deadline. Students can re-apply each semester for the scholarships, which are awarded at the end of the fall and spring semesters for the following semesters.
The awards are based on a point system, with priority placed on the student’s dedication to recovery. “The criteria is not simply about grades. In fact, most of the points come from the student’s dedication to recovery. Students can earn points by being engaged in the recovery program — going to meetings, doing service either through the program or on their own in the community, practicing honesty — and showing a dedication to academics,” says Castedo de Martell. “They do not have to have a 4.0. They just have to attend classes, ask for help as necessary, show improvement and not be on academic probation. Good candidates were those I knew well because they were actively present in the recovery community. I knew them and their stories.”
Irek Banaczyk, who is in his late forties and will complete his masters of science in social work this year, is one such student who was a known face at Students in Recovery. Besides his service in the program, Banaczyk was involved in other recovery-related volunteering in the community, at organizations such as a prison and a hospice.
“Being acknowledged for my hard work in recovery is empowering. It demonstrates that people do pay attention and care that you are contributing positively to society, that you are making a change in your life and those around you, that all those things matter,” says Banaczyk, who has won the scholarship four times.
The number of scholarships awarded each semester and the monetary amounts depends on the quality and volume of candidates who apply. “Sometimes, we might award five, sometimes 11,” Castedo de Martell says. “Students who went above and beyond received the higher percentage of the pool.”
La Hacienda is the largest and longest consistent scholarship funder, but parents and other supporters can contribute to each year’s amount, she notes. Funds are distributed through the university’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, which applies money first to tuition, then to outstanding institutional loans. Any overage is sent to the students for use for learning opportunities, including ones that might happen off campus, such as academic conferences or peer recovery specialist training.
Each scholarship recipient writes a thank you note to the owners of La Hacienda. “It is so meaningful for them to receive the personal letters, which are always so gracious,” Layton says. “The owners feel like they have a personal connection to those they assisted. For the recipients, it tells them: Somebody believes in me. For a lot of these folks they have not had this in their life for a long time.”
The fact that the university and community partners acknowledge the importance of a successful recovery is validating to the scholarship recipients, according to Castedo de Martell. “It’s meaningful because these students are getting acknowledged for their success in recovery,” she says. “The scholarship recognizes that they are in recovery from a disease and are acknowledging their status as people who have been faced with a challenge that they overcame. This is tremendous. Where else does a person get lauded for being in recovery?”
For more information on the partnership between the University of Texas at Austin and La Hacienda Treatment Center or on starting a scholarship program, contact Layton at firstname.lastname@example.org, Castedo de Martell at email@example.com or the Center for Students in Recovery at firstname.lastname@example.org.