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Sober-living communities make college possible for students in recovery

Augsburg College StepUP students
Augsburg College
During orientation week 2013, Augsburg College StepUP students participated in a ropes course at Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wis.

This past Tuesday was one of Patrice Salmeri’s favorite days of the year. It was orientation day for students enrolled in Augsburg College’s StepUP program, a residential community for undergraduates in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. For the past 12 years, Salmeri has been the program’s director.

“This is the day that parents, students and other family members are introduced to our program,” Salmeri said. “We talk to parents about how this is a moment when they get to be really hopeful for their children after years of worry. And students get to be hopeful, too, because for the first time in a long time they get to spread their wings in a safe environment. I think some of the fear is alleviated for everyone that day.”

Going to college can be especially stressful for young people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. With a well-earned reputation for un-monitored partying, life on college or university campuses can feel like a minefield for a newly sober student. Keeping a guard up against temptation can distract from studies and limit social lives, raising the rate of relapse — and dropout.

“Some people who’ve fought addiction stay away from college because they think, ‘I just don’t want to be in that environment,’ ” Salmeri said. “Some people go to college thinking they can handle the environment and then end up returning to use because they just couldn’t face the pressure.”

One of 35 in nation

Founded with a mission of providing sober housing and support for those very students, StepUP is one of 35 similar programs in the nation. Back in 1997, when the program was founded, it was only the third of its kind.

“Rutgers had the first program,” Salmeri explained. “Texas Tech in Lubbock also had their program, and then came Augsburg.”

StepUP, located in a specifically constructed residence hall on the college’s Minneapolis campus, has become a model for other colleges and universities interested in providing a safe environment for young people who have faced addiction. Since its founding, the program has grown from 23 residential students to this year’s high mark of 85.

Spreading the message

A few years ago, StepUP was awarded a state grant to help staff members assist other schools in the region interested in developing similar programs. CLEAN Reside, a sober-living community at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, was developed as a result of the grant. Salmeri and her colleagues consulted with administrators at St. Cloud State University, who, three years ago, created the St. Cloud State University Recovery Community.

Jen Matzke, St. Cloud State’s assistant dean of students, said she believes her program, which currently houses 18 participants, fills a need for students interested in sober living and recovery services at public university.

Patrice Salmeri
Patrice Salmeri

“Private colleges have wonderful options for students in recovery,” Matzke said, “but they are not always available to everyone based on their financial situation.”

Matzke also thinks that St. Cloud State’s location is a draw for some Midwestern families, who would rather stay close to home: “I just got a call from a parent who lives in Chicago. Their plan had been to send their student to a school in California with a similar program, because they didn’t think there was an option nearby. But then they heard about our program, and now their student is moving in with us.”

St. Scholastica’s CLEAN Reside, now in its third year, will be home to six students this fall. Tad Sears, director of the college’s Student Center for Health and Well-Being, explained that the program, which was enthusiastically supported by Scholastica administrators (“Our mission is a perfect fit with our Benedictine values,” he said), is still working to reach students in recovery who are interested in a residential program. CLEAN Reside participants live in a specially designated floor in one of the campus’ student apartment buildings.

“We haven’t had quite the response we thought we would get,” Sears said. “We are rethinking how we are doing our marketing, and refocusing our attention to local recruitment. One place that we have success is with students who didn’t come to Scholastica because of our program, but were experiencing substance abuse issues once they got to college. They’ve come into CLEAN Reside after already being on campus.”

St. Scholastica has also welcomed students from nearby institutions who are looking for sober living opportunities. “We’ve also housed Lake Superior College or [University of Minnesota – Duluth] students,” Sears said. “If they are interested in sober living while going to college, they can also live here.”

Worth the investment

Though it may be easy to stereotype young people in recovery as bad performance or retention risks, Salmeri said that with the right support students in her program actually outperform other students at Augsburg. 

“Their average GPAs are higher than the GPAs of other groups on campus,” she said, adding that several StepUP students have been recipients of prestigious Woodrow Wilson and Goldwater fellowships. “These are some of the most brilliant, creative people you’ll ever meet. They go on to do amazing things. We have doctors out there. We have lawyers. We have dentists. The sky’s the limit.”

At St. Cloud, the Sober Living Community only has a few years of data under its belt, but, Matzke said, their numbers look good so far.

“We are tracking GPA data. Students in our program tend to do better than the average St. Cloud student. That’s great, but true success for me is a student who says, ‘I wouldn’t be able to get my degree if not for this,’ or a parent who says, ‘If it wasn’t for this opportunity, my child might be dead.”

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