You Get More Than You Give
By AMY BOYD AUSTIN
The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) found humble beginnings in the spring of 2009. I was lucky enough to be a part of it from the inception. I’ve gotten to work with amazing people, with marvelous brains and even more incredible hearts. Through the past nine years, I’ve served as treasurer, president-elect and now president. As I transition to past president — which makes this my last letter as president — I’m reflective of my time with ARHE and am realizing more about what it’s done for me than what I’ve done for it.
When I was growing up, my family moved a lot. I attended 11 schools in 16 years. I would come to know that feeling — the instantaneous pit in my stomach that told me what was coming when my parents would call us kids together. Yep, we’re moving, again. The sadness, the frustration, the feeling of powerlessness over another major change in my life. Growing up in the 1970s, there was no internet, no cell phones, and long-distance calls were a luxury afforded only to adults. So, when I had to say goodbye to my friends, my school, my house, my neighborhood, even my routines, it was goodbye forever. It was arduous and heartwrenching every time.
When I moved into my new home, I would do everything that was expected of me — go to school, make friends, join an activity — but I think I stopped really allowing myself to deeply engage, to feel a sense of connection or to believe that I could have an impact, make a difference. In fact, I think that most of the time I did these things because that’s what was expected and it’s what I knew. But somewhere inside, I was just biding time until the next move.
Fast-forward 30 years, and I’ve been at the University of Vermont (UVM) for 14 of them. I’d been hired as the director of health promotion and was motivated to bring opportunities for exploring wellness to the campus. Of course, I continued to do my own work as well. As a person dedicated to reflection, personal growth and development, it was interesting to unpack some of my baggage and realize the weird ways my foundational experiences impacted me. Moving to Vermont started me on a journey of peeling back the layers and introduced me to concepts I’d never really comprehended. ARHE helped me heal some of those old wounds.
I think this was the first time I started to understand what it meant to have a sense of community outside of family. When I moved to Vermont in 2004, I bought what was generously termed a “fixerupper.” I was at Home Depot pretty much every weekend. But within my very small town and the UVM community, I started tuning into things about buying local and avoiding the notorious big-box stores. I didn’t really get it. If I could buy it cheaper at the box store, why wouldn’t I? It was only after meeting some neighbors and learning that they owned a local business that was at risk of going under that I started to make the connection. These were folks who’d been investing in their community for 30 years — and my business could help sustain that. Buying the cheaper hammer didn’t seem to be benefitting anyone but me (and my bank account, but that’s a story of privilege for another day). So, I made the switch. This made me feel good about what I was doing, but I hadn’t yet made the connection of how this also tied me to the community.
I spent several years fixing up my house, doing my job and basically moving forward with an external sense of purpose and always guided by doing the next right thing but not necessarily experiencing a feeling of fulfillment and connection. My work with students was always rewarding but not necessarily lasting. It was then that a counselor shared with me that he was working with three students at UVM who were trying desperately to get sober but were unable to due to the abstinence-hostile environment of the residence halls and the campus culture in general.
I began to research options for these students and stumbled upon the concept of collegiate recovery communities (CRCs). I had no idea that collegiate recovery would not just provide UVM’s campus with something amazing but me as well.
The next few years are somewhat of a whirlwind. A visit from Patrice Salmeri of Augsburg University’s StepUP Program to jump-start our program, a trip to Texas Tech to learn about its CRC, and attendance at the first collegiate recovery conference lit a fire in me that continues to fuel my passion, my work, and my love for collegiate recovery and the folks who embody them. It was there, at that first conference, where I met the amazing people I’ve had the honor of working alongside for the past nine years with ARHE.
Moving forward, I was busy creating a collegiate recovery program (CRP) at UVM, starting a family and getting ARHE established, so I didn’t really have much time for reflection. But what I’m keenly aware of is the connectedness, support and value I felt within the work. Within UVM, I thought it was important to create this space for students in recovery, this sense of connection, this home, this feeling of being somewhere that really sees you and wants you there — even though I didn’t really know what it meant to feel a part of, just what it felt like to not be a part of. At ARHE, I wanted to create systems that provided access and roadmaps for others for creating these spaces and communities on their campuses. What I hadn’t anticipated was that through my CRP and ARHE work, I would also find that space, that sense of connection, that feeling of being valued and appreciated for what I bring.
I’ve told many people that going to the ARHE conference is like no other conference they’ve experienced. It’s what I lovingly call “old home days.” So many of us who work in collegiate recovery are somewhat isolated on our campuses. Not that we are working outside the system, but we are really the only ones on our campus who do what we do, who truly understand the work and what it means to support recovery on a college campus. The only ones who understand that it’s not just about reserving spaces, ordering food, finding students, creating paths to recovery and providing recovery support but also about building community, combatting stigma (both external and internal), and educating our campuses and broader communities about recovery as a solution. When I come to the ARHE conference, I don’t have to explain (or defend) what I do to anyone — because they’re in it, too. It’s a huge relief. I don’t have to be “on” all the time. I can be, and feel, connected, supported and valued for the work because we’re all in it together. My service on the ARHE board has provided the same: a sense of community and connection, an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than me and bigger than UVM’s CRP, and an opportunity to do great work together.
It is a strange place to be in — shifting out of the presidency. I feel pride in what we’ve accomplished, optimism for what’s ahead, curiosity about my path and excitement about who will continue to lead ARHE. Although this shift represents another change, I do not feel the loss that’s come to accompany so many other moves in my life. I think that no matter what, I will always feel a tie to this community. It’s become a part of me, my family, my life. I feel joy from being a part of ARHE and believe that no matter how much I’ve given, I’ve received more back from being a part of this community.
I hope that each of you is feeling supported and valued for the work that you do. My opportunities with ARHE have taught me the value of community and connection and that no matter how hard I work or how much energy I put in, if I am truly engaged in the work, my return will be bigger than my investment. Your service within your institution and within ARHE are both valued and appreciated. I hope you’ll find a way to continue to engage this work and deepen your connection to ARHE as well. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.
Amy Boyd Austin is the president of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education and the director of the Catamount Recovery Program at the University of Vermont. She has her master’s in social service management from Bryn Mawr College and her bachelor’s in criminal justice from the University of Delaware. Boyd Austin has worked in the field of addiction and recovery for the past 25 years. She is passionate about supporting students in recovery from both a micro and macro level and believes this fits well within her social justice lens of seeking equity for underrepresented identities in pursuit of higher education and an overall level playing field.