Grantee Spotlight: Improving Access to Recovery Supports in Colleges and UniversitiesApril 15, 2021
Tim Rabolt is executive director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), which helps staff at 155 U.S. colleges and universities create and run collegiate recovery programs. These programs offer support groups and workshops for college students in recovery as well as opportunities for them to live, study, and socialize together. A FORE grant is enabling the association to sustain its work during the pandemic by creating webinars, virtual recovery meetings, and other tools to help college recovery program staff keep students engaged. We spoke with Rabolt about his own recovery journey and his work at ARHE, where he began as a student member, became a student representative on ARHE’s board, then a consultant and director of community relations before becoming executive director in 2018.
On April 15, ARHE will be joining national celebrations of National Collegiate Recovery Day, which coincides with the 11th anniversary of its founding. The daylong virtual event will include awards, student speakers, and an open mic talent show, among many other events.
Tell us about your experience with addiction and recovery?
Next month will be 10 years in recovery for me. I had a very solid upbringing, with a lot of privilege and opportunity but no adversity, really. That changed in eighth grade, when my parents got separated and I got kicked out of school for a variety of academic and behavioral misconduct. It just kind of built this inner struggle with feelings I’d never experienced. I had no coping skills to move through what I was dealing with and ended up using everything that was put in front of me: alcohol, weed, and any kind of prescription pill.
How did you find your way to treatment?
I was lucky: I didn’t have to struggle to access care or find the support I needed. The detox and treatment I went to and the 12-step meetings I went to early on, they were the old school approach, which I don’t think is beneficial for most. But it was what I needed at the time; it was kind of rigid and tough, an abstinence-only approach. And then, I got through treatment and started college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. And that’s actually where things got much worse, even though I wasn’t using.
What was hardest about college life?
It wasn’t unique to where I went, but anywhere you walk around campus, you’d see parties happening. I would wake up on Saturday morning and see beer cans in the hall, in the stairwells. You could still smell weed or see the remnants of partying. Walking through campus was like a battlefield of non-recovery. Even at the library, people were talking about study drugs. They’re pulling out Adderall. And so nowhere was really safe.
What helped you stay sober?
Connecting with other students in recovery. I would go to meetings off campus where adults were talking about their kids and taxes and I’m trying to talk about finals and dorm living and stuff. I asked around at college whether there was anything for students in recovery and they didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Then I had a roommate who had to drop out of the school because of his substance use and mental health issues. That was like the lowest of the low at that point. But the college administrator who had helped him make the transition to leaving school to get treatment brought together students in recovery and gave us a meeting space. And that’s how it started, just with a weekly meeting.
How did the program grow?
After a few years, we got up to 35 or so students. We had the ground floor of a townhouse that we called the Serenity Shack — we would do things like watch the Super Bowl, or play video games, host open houses, and share food and stuff like that. During weekly meetings, we would check in with each other about what the high point of the last week was or the low point. And we just kind of talked that out. To support it, we raised $100,000 over a few years through events, sponsorships from the university, and parents. And now there’s a staff member who works on the recovery program.
What does an ideal collegiate recovery program look like?
It depends on the campus, because what it looks like at a big, four-year college is different than at a small school where it’s mostly commuters. But it definitely starts with students, space, and staff. Those are the anchors. So, a school like Texas Tech, they’re really robust in how far they’ve developed over the past 35 years. They have a huge building, with a meditation room, rec space with ping pong tables, and a big meeting room. All the staff have offices right there. It’s an accessible and accommodating space dedicated to students in recovery. Then there is programing, for example at Texas Tech, they do a study abroad to Prague every year. How incredible is that: a sober study abroad?
Augsburg University in Minnesota and Rutgers University in New Jersey also have robust programs. They both have residential housing for students in recovery. Rutgers’ program has been around for 38 years. Lisa Laitman, the woman who started it, is still there. It’s woven into the fabric of the university.
Where do you see programs struggle?
As with other initiatives on campus, it mainly comes down to lack of funding. The turnover in higher education among staff and student leadership is also a challenge. But even then, some schools are hesitant to start collegiate recovery programs for different reasons. They might say, we just don’t think that’s going to work on this campus or we don’t know how to sustain it. Some schools think recovery programs would somehow blemish their reputation; they think they don’t have “those students.” But surveys I’ve seen from the Recovery Research Institute suggest around 22.9 percent of college students have a substance use disorder compared with 8.5 percent of the general public, and they’re on all different kinds of campuses.
How has the pandemic challenged collegiate recovery programs, and how has ARHE offered support?
I think the hardest thing is that the community piece is so central to recovery and sustaining or building community virtually is so tough during the pandemic. Students are trying to navigate life and figure out jobs and classes. They spend so much time on Zoom that anything deemed optional gets crossed out of the calendar because doing so feels like self-care. The FORE funding has enabled us to create new types of programming to build community, including book clubs and recovery meetings. We are finding events that offer a prize or involve a contest or something else fun help draw students back. We are also offering supports to the staff of collegiate recovery programs to help them connect with one another and grow their programs.
With FORE funding, ARHE is launching an equity and justice discussion series. Why is this important?
Collegiate recovery is at intersection of two inequitable systems — access to behavioral health care and education. Both are very much set up to benefit the privileged more than marginalized communities. In March, we launched a free, monthly series on the intersections of equity and justice issues and the collegiate recovery field. Our first discussion was focused on trans and non-gender-conforming students in collegiate recovery, and our next is focused on understanding equity, diversity, and inclusion in recovery.
What do you hope to accomplish?
We want collegiate recovery to be a space to repair harm that’s been done and a place that truly is intended to include and support and advocate for all. We know collegiate recovery programs are only as diverse as the student body; ensuring equal access to college isn’t an issue that can be fixed overnight. In the near term, we plan to reach out to historically Black colleges and universities, as well as tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, to help them start programs and bring them into the conversations the field is having. Ultimately, I think it’s really important that recovery meetings are diverse so people feel comfortable talking about their experiences with discrimination, whether it’s based on race, gender, or sexual identity. In 12-step meetings, there’s a tendency to say only focus on your addiction. That’s easier for a privileged person than, say, someone who is struggling with their identity or is worried about being harmed outside the meeting.
You can sign up for ARHE’s equity and justice series here.