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Student reporters cover the U of M’s recovery community — and find supports lacking

Photo by Rebecca Rassier
Journalism students, bottom row, from left: Kelsey Roy, Alissa Barthel, Lemika Fondren, Genevieve Vickers, Eliana Schreiber. Top row, from left: Haley Breshears, Alex Wittenberg, Carissa Polo, Anthony Bryant.

The assignment for the group of journalism students enrolled in the Brovald-Sim Community Journalism Practicum at the University of Minnesota was to identify an underserved community at the university and set out to report stories that directly affect its members.

It didn’t take long for the young journalists to find the their target community — students in recovery from or facing drug and alcohol addiction — and not much longer than that for them to discover that members of this community felt their unique needs were not being met by the institution.

Kelsey Roy, a journalism major and digital media studies minor who completed the practicum just before graduating earlier this month, recalled the process of choosing a target community.

“It was the first day of class,” said Roy, who served as the project’s data editor. “We were all together, brainstorming communities that we’d want to write about, and one of our classmates brought up addiction and recovery early in the game. It just grew from there. The idea felt so promising that we hardly discussed any other options. We agreed to set on it right away.”

The class instructor is Gayle Golden, Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication senior lecturer and Morse-Alumni distinguished university teacher. She explained that the group of 10 students didn’t have direct experience with addiction and recovery, but they were inspired by the prospect of using their writing and reporting skills to advocate for a community whose members regularly face stigma and discrimination.

“There’s been a lot of discussion and advocacy around mental health at the university recently,” Golden said. “Because of that, the stigma around common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety feels like it is fading away. There have been more resources devoted to mental health at the university. People are more willing to talk about their diagnoses. It’s been really great to see. But addiction and substance use disorders have not benefited from that same amount of attention and understanding.”

The students’ articles were published on AccessU, a website that the students created to cover the community.

Alex Wittenberg, a journalism and political science major who also graduated earlier this month, was selected as the project’s editor. He said that he and his classmates set out to research the issue, meeting with University of Minnesota students in recovery and talking to them about the issues that felt pertinent to their community. What they learned was that students struggling with substance use disorder felt that the university provided limited support, and that they wanted more.

For many years, the university sponsored SOBER, or Students Off Booze Enjoying Recovery, Wittenberg said, but recently the club had fallen off the radar. “We learned that SOBER had no members and no organizer this past semester,” Wittenberg said. The students Wittenberg talked to said they wanted support but felt they had nowhere to turn and no one to talk to.

Gayle Golden

Gayle Golden

“We were aware of the stigma that surrounds addiction and we all had direct experience with the party culture that exists on this campus,” Wittenberg said. “Even though no one in the class had direct experience with the topic, we felt that there was a real need for coverage of this community.”

Alissa Barthel, a journalism and theater major who served as the project’s web editor, said that she and her classmates discovered what they saw as a culture of silence around recovery at university. 

“No one really talks about addiction and recovery on campus,” Barthel said. “There are services advertised for sexual assault and mental health all over — and there should be, because those are important services to have — but some of the students we talked to said they would not know where to go for help at the university with addiction issues. “

And the survey says …

To get a better sense of how the larger University of Minnesota community views addiction and recovery on campus, the practicum students, led by data editor Roy, designed and distributed a survey to 5,000 randomly selected undergraduate students on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. About 40 percent of the more than 700 survey respondents said that they were in recovery themselves or knew someone who struggled with addiction.

The students used survey responses to narrow down distinct groups at the university. Students who said they were in recovery or knew someone who struggled with addiction were more likely to say that the university did not provide adequate resources for recovering students. Students who did not know anyone struggling with addiction were more likely to say that the U’s recovery services were adequate.

The survey also gave respondents an option to volunteer to speak with practicum students.

“We added a component in the survey where there were a couple of demographic questions, including, ‘Have you ever considered or received treatment for an addiction?’ ” Roy explained. “Those who answered yes were given an opportunity to let us know if they were interested in talking to us further. The sheer number of people who were willing to talk to us was an eye-opening moment. We knew this community was present at the university; we hadn’t really understood just how many of them there were.”

Barthel spoke with some of the survey volunteers. She learned about the pressures a student in recovery faces on a campus with a strong party culture. “I interviewed an older student who has her own recovery community off campus, but she said that when you are younger and you’re realizing you have addiction issues, it is really easy to blend in or get away with dangerously addictive behavior because things like binge drinking aren’t that uncommon on campus,” she said. “It’s very easy to slide under the radar.”

Respondents told the students that the U’s party culture can be triggering for people with substance use issues. And without a strong support network, a student in recovery can feel isolated, as though they have no good options to live a sober social life.

“For students who are coming in already struggling with addiction and maybe don’t really know it yet, I think being a student here can be hard,” Roy said. “You arrive as a young person to a campus where there is a strong partying culture. A lot of times students feel they need to participate in that culture in order to be part of the university, in order to make friends. That’s dangerous for someone who already has an addictive personality.”

‘An exemplary model’

Some survey respondents told the practicum students that they wish the university offered stronger support programs and even an on-campus sober housing option. The students went in search of a school that offered the kind of supports their sources were hoping for. They didn’t have to go far.

Augsburg University is a stone’s throw from the U of M’s East Bank campus. The school is known nationally for its comprehensive recovery services programs, including StepUP, a residential recovery community on Augsburg’s main campus where students aged 18-24 live in a sober environment with support from program staff and licensed counselors.

“As soon as you start to look for recovery colleges, you see Augsburg because it is such an exemplary model,” Wittenberg said. To find out more about how StepUP works, Wittenberg met with one of the program’s students: “He told me about how the program works and what it offers. I learned that it is possible to have a comprehensive recovery program in a university setting.”

Tamarah Gehlen, StepUP director, said that her program grew organically from Augsburg’s culture of student support. 

“The need for a program like this was demonstrated,” Gehlen said. “We have students and faculty who are in recovery and they told us that this was something that was needed. Recovery is in the heart of many people who are present at the school.”

Some university board members or administrators might be concerned that creating dedicated space and services for students facing addiction might give a bad message about a school’s student body. Gehlen said that Augsburg has seen no negative response to her program since it was established two decades ago.

“There are some schools that have concerns around the message that recovery housing may give,” Gehlen said. “But we are seeing a greater interest from schools that are recognizing the abilities that students have, admitting people who have struggled in the past but are now committed to recovery. We have produced wonderful results.”

Augsburg is a relatively small, private liberal arts school. The practicum students decided that because of that fact, it wasn’t appropriate to compare Augsburg’s offerings to the University of Minnesota’s recovery support programs. For a more equal comparison, the class looked at recovery support at Big 10 universities. With assistance from the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, they compared the universites to one another, assigning letter grades that represented recovery support services provided for students. It was a big undertaking.

“We started out with three or four people on the project, then it turned into an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, knowing how much research and effort it was going to take,” Barthel said. “We had people calling schools and trying to figure out what resources they offered. We eventually developed a rubric and figured it out piece by piece.”

When the dust settled, the University of Minnesota earned a C- for its recovery support programs compared to its Big 10 peers. Only one school, the University of Illinois at Champaign, had a lower grade of D+.

A night at the forum

Now that the grades were in, the practicum students decided to create an opportunity for community members to meet with university staff and administrators to talk about their concerns. They titled their forum, “You Can’t Be an Alcoholic Until You Graduate? A Conversation About the Myths and facts of Addiction in College.” It was held earlier this month in Murphy Hall.

Forum flyer

Forum flyer

Forum panelists included Patrice Salmeri, Augsburg’s executive director for recovery advancement; Emily O’Hara, University of Minnesota Office for Student Affairs care manager; and Dave Golden, director of public health and communication at the U of M’s  Boynton Health, and two students, one in recovery and one representing the Greek community.

Barthel said the event attracted a range of participants.

“During the forum there were moments that I looked around the room and thought, ‘How did we get so lucky with the people that are in the room?’ There were professors, students in recovery, even a medical student who sees the effects of binge drinking on the weekends. People asked panel members serious questions and held them accountable for their answers.”

Gayle Golden said that the forum opened the eyes of key members of the university administration to some of the struggles that members of the recovery community face on a daily basis.

“At one point, a member of the audience confronted the university administration, saying, ‘This institution has failed us. We have a disease and for us it is overwhelming to come to school. You have failed to provide the support and community we need that can help us navigate this environment,’ ” she recalled. “The panel was taken aback. It was powerful.”

Response and reaction

The students’ reporting and research, combined with the community response at the forum, prompted a positive response from the university, Gayle Golden said.

“What we saw at the forum was they these administrators are good people. They really and truly are trying to do what they can do within the existing culture and administration to make things better for this community. They were confronted with something that they maybe hadn’t realized was an issue. They began to really see the needs of a community that is not usually very visible on this campus.”

Dave Golden said that he felt that the work that came out of the practicum has already sparked greater attention to the needs of the university’s recovery community. While he was disappointed to learn that his school received such poor marks for recovery support, he decided to view the results in as positive a light as possible.

“I didn’t like to hear the results,” he admitted, “but a lower grade always gives us room for improvement.”

One improvement that Dave Golden and his staff at Boynton have already started working on is reinvigorating SOBER. They’ve assigned a staff member to be the organization’s leader for next semester, and marketing staff will be developing ways to better promote the organization to the campus community.

Another idea that grew from the forum and the AccessU reporting was an increased interest in developing a dedicated housing option for students in recovery. Dave Golden said that the university tried developing a living/learning recovery community in Middlebrook Hall a few years ago, but not enough students signed up. He said he likes the idea of the university sponsoring such a community, but it may take some time to get something like that up and running again. Until then, he said that he and his staff strongly support the idea of creating a dedicated space for the community near other student organizations on the second floor of Coffman Memorial Union.

“Initially, housing might be a heavy lift for the first couple of years, but finding a space on campus might be a different kind of thing entirely,” Dave Golden said. “A hangout, a study spot, a coffee pot, a safe place for members of the university’s recovery community to gather: That’s definitely something that could happen soon.” 

Inspired to action

The community journalism practicum required dedication, but the students felt satisfied that their hard work paid off in the end. They learned that by focusing in on one community and its needs they were able to raise attention and spur what could be positive change.

“The bottom line is whatever happens, this class’ community reporting uncovered the fact that there is a community of students in recovery at the University of Minnesota and these students are not alone,” Gayle Golden said. “That was a very powerful act of reporting. I think it surprised the students in the class that they could do as much as they did. I don’t think they saw the community before they took the class. I don’t think they realized it existed. But now they won’t forget.”

For Barthel, the class gave her a real-world example of how journalists have the power to create change. “It wasn’t a regular class where your attitude is, ‘I’m just going to do my homework,’ ” she said. “It felt like there were so many different stakes involved, we felt more responsible to be doing really good work because people were trusting us with their stories.”

Roy agreed. “The experience of working on this project was extremely eye-opening,” she said. “It ended up being really rewarding to write about this community and advocate for them through our work. I really hope that all of our hard work this semester can do something for students who are struggling with addiction or are in recovery. I hope they’ll find the support they need.”

Dave Golden said he’s excited to advocate for the changes that the practicum students highlighted in their work.

“Some of the very best initiatives or ideas or suggestions I’ve seen during my long career here have come from the student population,” he said. “I think it is great that they are bringing up these issues and saying, ‘Can we do more?’ It’s a positive thing. They want to do good work for the university community, and so do we.”

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