The Next Big Step in Recovery: College Graduation

The Next Big Step in Recovery: College Graduation

A ceremony for students completing Rutgers’ pioneering alcohol and drug recovery housing program

Devin F.
Devin F. graduated May 16 'clean and sober' after participating in Rutgers' Recovery Housing program. He is pictured with his mother at a special ceremony honoring students who completed the program.
Credit: Frank Greenagel Jr.
Flashing cameras, beaming family members, flowing scarlet robes, and esteemed faculty members – all the pomp associated with a traditional college graduation filled Livingston Student Center’s suite 101 on May 16. But the circumstance banding this group of eight graduates together is unique: They are roommates of Rutgers Recovery Housing program, the first on-campus college housing in the country for students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. 

“At one point in your lives, you and your families were not sure if you would live or die, let alone graduate from Rutgers,” said Lisa Laitman, director of the university’s Alcohol and Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) since 1983. Laitman told the audience these graduates are proof that “it is possible to stay both clean and sober and graduate from college.”

Donning teal and purple honor chords – symbolic colors of recovery and royalty and penance, respectively – each graduate stepped to the podium after being presented by a family member, sponsor, or friend. They thanked loved ones for everything from bailing them out of Rikers Island to supporting them in the wake of relapses, suicide attempts, coming out, and testing positive for HIV. And they expressed gratitude: for their sobriety, for the addiction that shaped them into who they are today, and especially for ADAP staff and Recovery Housing, without which they say this day would not have been possible.

'Having that space to be with other students who were struggling and having the same issues I did was so important to me. It was so necessary for my success at Rutgers – and my recovery.' – Mitch

“I’ve gotten kicked out of every living situation ever. My whole life I’ve always been getting into trouble,” Neha M. said, adding that after nine years in and out of college and recovery she is ecstatic to be able to truthfully tell people she is graduating. “They (her roommates at Recovery Housing) just took me as I was. That’s all I ever wanted in life was to fit in.”

Fitting in on a college campus when you are a recovering alcoholic and addict isn’t easy, especially when you consider the statistics: 49 percent (3.8 million) of full-time college students binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs, according to a 2007 report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

“I would see things that would tempt me at Rutgers, and I would come back to Recovery House and feel safe,” said Mitch, who lived in Recovery Housing for more than two years before graduating in January with a bachelor’s  degree in communication.

ADAP’s Recovery Housing has changed address several times, moving from a section of a dorm when it was founded in 1988 to apartments and to its current 25-bed facility on the New Brunswick Campus. Next year, the program will expand into an adjacent building, where it can house an additional 13 students. There is also an eight-bed facility on the Newark Campus.

“Having that space to be with other students who were struggling and having the same issues I did was so important to me,” said Mitch, a New Jersey resident. “It was so necessary for my success at Rutgers – and my recovery.”

Aside from honoring graduates, Monday’s celebration, paid tribute to Recovery Housing alumni and welcomed incoming freshman and their families into the ADAP fold. The 18 past graduates who stood to receive applause that night is a testament to the success of Recovery Counselor Frank L. Greenagel, Jr.

 Since joining ADAP in the spring of 2009, Greenagel has made it his mission to tap into the 60-plus ADAP alumni who live locally and foster a sense of community between students past and present.  He’s organized dozens of events to bring students and alumni together including hikes, bike rides, museum and movie outings, lunches, dinners, breakfasts, video game nights, wing-eating contests, and a student vs. alumni softball tournament.

“So much of life is people being familiar with each other,” Greenagel said, himself both a Recovery Housing and Rutgers graduate. “If you go to a party, and you don’t know anybody, that party sucks. A lot of what I do is just exposing people to each other so when they go out into the community there are more faces they recognize.”

More than offering familiar faces and alternate activities to drinking, engaging students with alumni who’ve remained sober is a powerful reminder that recovery and living a “real life” is possible, said Mitch who still remembers bonding with an ADAP alum shortly after he moved into Recovery Housing.

“I thought, ‘Wow this kid is awesome. He has success. I want to be like him," Mitch said. "It gave you proof that this works.”

The relationship between student and alumni can be beautifully reciprocal, said 2007 Rutgers graduate and Recovery Housing alum Brian F.

“Anytime I’m going out of my way to help another alcoholic it’s probably helping me stay sober more than it’s helping the other person stay sober,” the North Brunswick resident said. “One of the ideas behind AA is you have to give it away to keep it.”

Had Greenagel and his cadre of alumni been on the scene when Brian was a resident, he suspects it could have prevented his relapses while in school. While he praised Recovery Housing and credits it and ADAP with playing a large part in his recovery and graduation, Brian said that bonding with likeminded peers who have limited recovery experience only gets some students so far. But the opportunity to interact with alumni who in turn introduce students to AA “old timers” with 10, 15, or 20 years of sobriety can give them a more secure foothold in the recovery process.

“It’s like the No Child Left Behind act,” said Sam F., a 2008 Recovery Housing alum and former RA who now sponsors Neha. “If you’re more unified, you do more things together, there’s more alumni reaching out to you, it’s harder to slip through the cracks.”