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StepUP Director Patrice Salmeri on expanding Augsburg recovery program's reach

StepUP Director Patrice Salmeri
Photo by Neil King
StepUP Director Patrice Salmeri: "StepUP is the most comprehensive colligate recovery program in the country. I think this new role will only enhance that."

For the last 15 years, Patrice Salmeri has been focused on building Augsburg College’s StepUP program, a residential recovery community for undergraduates that has won national recognition. Salmeri’s loved being StepUP’s director, but in recent years she’s struggled with the feeling that there was so much more she could do to advance the program’s mission in the larger community — if she only had time to step away from daily management tasks and dig into larger projects.

“There was always so much pulling me in so many different directions,” she said. “There were many things I wanted to do but just couldn’t get done.”

Then, just a few months ago, Augsburg President Paul C. Pribbenow told Salmeri about an exciting opportunity. A donor had expressed interest in helping build Augsburg’s reputation in the national recovery community. To do that, the college decided to create a new position: executive director for recovery advancement. Was Salmeri interested?

“It was the perfect opportunity,” she told me. “I said I was ready for a change and I enthusiastically accepted their offer.”

While Salmeri leaves big shoes to fill, the college has found a slate of qualified finalists for the StepUP director position. Interviews are under way and the new director’s name will be announced by the end of the month.

After that, Salmeri plans to help her replacement get settled and then take a couple of weeks off before stepping into her new role. Last week, after a meeting with one of the StepUP director candidates, she took time to talk to me about her new role at the college and what she hopes to accomplish.

MinnPost: This new role is a step away from a program that’s been central in your life for some time. How are you feeling about the change?

Patrice Salmeri: It’s so exciting. I’ll be doing some of the things I’ve tried to do as StepUP director but didn’t have time to go really deep with. 

MP: What are some of those projects that you weren’t able to focus on in your current role that you think you’ll be able to go deep into in this new job? 

PS: I’m hoping to take advantage of reduced stigma around addiction in the United States and use that to advise and change policy issues on local, state and national levels. In the past, I’ve worked closely with Michael Botticelli, former head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). I haven’t yet had a chance to connect with Richard Baum, the acting ONDCP director, but I look forward to discussing things that we can do to fight the opioid crisis, and to advocate for people in recovery in all kinds of ways.

MP: That sounds like “off campus” work. How will your work at Augsburg change?

PS: Since the beginning, my work at StepUP has been largely focused on undergrads. In this new position, I will be able to think more broadly about what we can do for students who don’t choose to be part of StepUP, or about graduate students or adult students who are taking undergraduate classes. What kinds of recovery services can we offer them? I’ll get to expand our reach. I’ll also be looking into what we can do for alumni of our programs. We want to increase their reunion participation and expand their connections to the college. These are exciting projects, the kind of things that are so important but I couldn’t make time to address before.

MP: In the past, you’ve told me about how you’ve helped other schools start programs like StepUP. Is this the kind of work you’d also like to expand in your new role?

PS: That’s the plan. As StepUP director, I have been able to help six schools get programs like ours started. This is exciting. But I’d like to do more. In this new position, I’ll have more time to travel and work with schools that are interested in getting recovery programs up and running.

There’s been a big boom in collegiate recovery across the country. When I first started in this position 15 years ago, there were only three programs like ours — Rutgers, Texas Tech and Brown. Now there are 75 programs and 50 more working to get grants so they can get started. At Augsburg, with StepUP, we have this wonderful, strong program with 106 students. In a small liberal arts school that’s a big deal, and that puts us in the perfect position to help other schools start similar programs.

MP: Your good reputation precedes you.

PS: StepUP is the most comprehensive colligate recovery program in the country. I think this new role will only enhance that. And I can’t wait to get out and spread the message of the promise of collegiate recovery. To paraphrase one of the 12 steps, if you experience something so wonderful, why wouldn’t you want to share it with the world? At Augsburg, StepUP and the success of our graduates has helped enhance our reputation as an institution. Why wouldn’t I want to share that kind of success with the world? That’s what I see unfolding in this new role.

MP: Did this new position get created because you asked for changes in your role?

PS: Not exactly. When this opportunity arose, I was ready for a change, but I don’t think I had expressed that feeling to anyone. Then a few things came together all at once: The president had been thinking about looking for a person to advise him on recovery issues. And there was this donor who wanted the school to be more visibly involved in recovery matters and was willing to back that goal up financially. These things came together in one day, creating a great big crescendo of opportunity. I was asked if I wanted to fulfill the role, and I was ready and grateful to do so. It was this wonderful coming together of concepts, ideas and passions.

MP: For many years, you have been the face of StepUP. Do you worry that the program could struggle with you gone?

PS: Not at all. I’ve been doing this job for 15 years. After that amount of time, some important things start to become routine and may even lose some of their edge. I’m looking forward to having a pair of fresh eyes come in, take a look at what we’ve been up to and say, “I can see how you can do this here and that here, how you can switch things up and make them better.” This feels really exciting to me.

MP: Is there anything about your old role that you’ll miss in your new role?

PS: I won’t have everyday interaction with students like I have for so many years. This feels bittersweet. I’ll miss it. I try to tell myself that because I’ll have less interaction with undergraduates in this new role, I won’t be bogged down with huge responsibilities. I’ll have more opportunity to get out in the community and talk with families and treatment providers about what this program means for our students.

But I’ll really miss the students — the opportunity to work with them directly and to watch their lives change. For instance, there’s this one gentleman who’s graduating. I remember when he came here. He was nervous and scared and not sure of himself. Now he already has a great job lined up for when he graduates. He’s got so much more confidence and his self-esteem has gone above and beyond what any of us could have imagined. I will miss individual success stories like that most of all.

Watching recovery unfold is a beautiful process. People always talk about how hard recovery is and all the struggles that come with it. But I think that always out of struggle comes something beautiful if you stick with it long enough.

MP: Sounds like a bit of a mixed bag. You’re excited about this new opportunity, but sad to be leaving your other job behind.

PS: There will be some level of grieving for me when I finally leave this job, but this new opportunity it also just so exciting. I can’t wait to get started. With graduation happening and these important changes going on in our program, I feel like I’m in a season of gratitude: Right now, I’m feeling grateful for just about everything.  

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