What classes should I take? Which friendships should I pursue? Is this professor best suited to be my adviser?
Should I go to the party next door?
These questions, and many others, plague first-year university students. Thrown into a new environment, the potential for success is great. It is a thrilling time in one’s life. But for many, academic and social insecurities also arise: what if I have trouble making friends?; what if the coursework is too challenging? It is thrilling, but daunting.
For students recovering from substance abuse, the prospect of pursuing a university degree can be especially frightening. I am thinking namely about those who choose to live on campus; far from family, friends and counsellors, a support system that encourages sobriety may be difficult, or even impossible, to find.
In the late 80’s, universities began responding to the needs of recovering students. Featured in a recent New York Times article, Rutgers University, in New Jersey, U.S., became the first university to offer a residential recovery dormitory, opening the building to students in 1988. Certainly, the idea of on-campus sober housing was not new. But, the idea was a progressive one because of the population it targeted; recovery housing would not be aimed at prevention but at continued treatment, and would only be available to students who had already completed treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.
Other American universities have followed Rutgers’ example, among them Ohio University, University of Vermont and Fairfield University in Connecticut. In response, The Association of Recovery Schools (ARS) was formed in 2002. The nonprofit champions educational support – with a focus on secondary and post-secondary education – for recovering substance abusers. Qualifying institutions can apply for membership, an umbrella that provides recognition as a ‘recovery school’ and nationwide advocacy work by ARS.
Transitions will always be traumatic for addicts. Even when these students successfully complete a degree, they will leave the university support system and must cultivate a new one. Of course, the benefits of attending a university – and living in recovery housing – will persist beyond graduation day. Recovering abusers will always have the friendships they formed with other recovering students, and they will have found and worked hard at a professional passion. Both of these – a supportive community and a challenging education – can, with continued work, all serve as a wall against the threat of relapse.