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Building a campus recovery community

March 15, 2011
by Frank L. Greenagel Jr., LCSW, LCADC, ACSW, CJC
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Rutgers enlists sober alumni in its programs for current students

Rutgers University was founded in 1766 and became the state university of New Jersey in 1945. In 1972, Rutgers College, the premier college within the university, became a co-ed institution. The school's Alcohol and Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) was created in 1983. Lisa Laitman, MSED, LCADC, was hired to educate and counsel students on Rutgers' Newark, New Brunswick and Camden campuses about substance abuse. Her first boss wondered if Laitman “would have enough work to do.”

In 1988, Laitman created Recovery Housing on the New Brunswick campus, the first on-campus housing in the U.S. for students in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence. In 1993, Recovery Housing opened on the Newark campus. There are 25 beds in New Brunswick (which has its own on-campus house) and eight in Newark (in two apartments in a dorm). Resident students must be sober at least 90 days, have a sponsor and attend at least two 12-Step meetings a week. To get in, students must apply to Rutgers for admission and must contact the ADAP staff and set up an interview.

More than 350 students have resided in the specialized housing. Students have ranged in age from 17 to 43, but typically fall between 18 and 26. Undergraduates, master's candidates, law students and PhD candidates have lived there. In 2008, ADAP held its 25th-year reunion, attended by more than 125 alumni.

I was hired at Rutgers in the spring of 2009 under a grant from New Jersey's Division of Addiction Services. I was tasked to help recovering students access university resources, provide academic counseling, improve students' connection with the local recovery community, develop activities for students to have fun, and reduce the stigma that some experienced in being in recovery on a college campus. My first move was to reach out to the 60-plus ADAP alumni who still lived within 30 minutes of Rutgers, to ask what changes needed to be made and if they would be willing to serve as mentors and sponsors.

The alumni response was tremendous. They pointed out what worked (the existence of the house, the individual counseling at ADAP, the activities at Rutgers) and what didn't (there should be at least a 90-day waiting period before moving in, some students don't go to meetings for a week or two at a time, there is a need for quicker interventions by staff when a student's behavior seems strange). Many of the alumni's suggestions were implemented.

In August 2009, 23 students (11 returned from the previous year) and 13 alumni attended a move-in orientation at the Recovery House in New Brunswick. Students introduced themselves, and the alumni talked about their sobriety date, major, when they lived in the Recovery House, their year of graduation, what they do now, and their strongest piece of advice to students about living in the house and/or attending college (don't date anyone in the house, don't let the Recovery House be your only source of support, attend all of your classes, write for the school newspaper, study abroad). Next, students had to fill out a form that matched a particular life experience to a particular alumnus (who has run a marathon, who has never smoked a cigarette). Afterwards, a barbeque provided a more laid-back atmosphere for students and alumni to converse.

In August 2010, 23 students were joined by 16 alumni for orientation. After the introductions and advice by the alumni, an AA meeting was held in the house (another eight members of the recovery community showed up for that). The barbeque lasted deep into the night.

More than a game

Four students joined seven alumni in an 11-man NFL Madden video game league last fall. I have run a video game football league at Rutgers for 10 years. Everyone in the league is in recovery or is a friend of recovery.

Big Fun, as the league is called, runs from August through March. Members enjoy the competition, camaraderie and fellowship that the league provides. Current resident Ryan D. said, “The league helped me meet friends I never would have had and helped me find a sponsor who has helped keep me alive. And society says video games are bad.”

Frank L. Greenagel, Jr., LCSW, LCADC, ACSW, CJC
Frank L. Greenagel, Jr., LCSW, LCADC, ACSW, CJC

Alex Q., a 2006 graduate, stated, “I have been working professionally for the past three years and it is tough sometimes for me to balance my social life with working long hours in my sales career. Playing in the league has helped me maintain friendships with 10 to 15 other sober individuals, and I really have fun in doing so.”

Brian F., a 2006 graduate, reported, “Your character defects can come out pretty quickly during or after a game. It's a great way to measure your growth.”

Chad L., a Rutgers alumnus who got sober after he graduated, connected with the recovery community through the Big Fun league. “The Madden league probably saved my sobriety and perhaps life,” he said. “I tend to isolate and that is when things get bad for me. Madden gave me a reason to come out. It also allowed me to create a network of sober friends. This network has essentially become my closest friends. Being around sober people so much really solidified this way of life for me.”

This year, 15 people are playing in Big Fun (nine alumni, six students). There are three sponsor-sponsee relationships in the league, and some of the alumni in the league sponsor other residents who don't play. Various alumni are around several nights a week (depending upon when their game is), and the game playing is often accompanied by dinner and 12-Step meeting attendance.