by Jennifer Conlin
It started with a wine cooler, said Paige Cederna, describing that first sweet, easy-to-down drink she experienced as a “magic elixir.”
“I had no inhibitions with alcohol,” said Ms. Cederna, 24. “I could talk to guys and not worry about anyone judging me. I remember being really proud the day I learned to chug a beer. I couldn’t get that feeling fast enough.” But before long, to get over “that feeling,” she was taking Adderall to get through the days.
But it was now more than three years since she drank her last drop of alcohol and used a drug for nonmedical reasons. Her “sober date,” she told the group, many nodding their heads encouragingly, was July 8, 2011.
Ms. Cederna’s story of addiction and recovery, told in a clear, strong voice, was not being shared at a 12-step meeting or in a treatment center. Instead, it was presented on a cool autumn day, in a classroom on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to a group of 30 undergraduate students in their teens and early 20s.
On the panel with Ms. Cederna were two other Michigan graduate students. Hannah Miller, 27, declared her “sober date” as Oct. 5, 2010, while Ariel Britt, 29, announced hers as Nov. 6, 2011. Like Ms. Cederna’s, Ms. Britt’s problems with drugs and alcohol started in her freshman year at Michigan, while Ms. Miller’s began in high school. All three are participants in a university initiative, now two years old, called the Collegiate Recovery Program.
Staying sober in college is no easy feat. “Pregaming,” as it is called on campus (drinking before social or sporting events), is rampant, and at Michigan it can start as early as 8 a.m. on a football Saturday. The parties take place on the porches and lawns of fraternities, the roofs and balconies of student houses, and clandestinely in dormitories — everywhere but inside the academic buildings.
For this reason — because the culture of college and drinking are so synonymous — in September 2012 the University of Michigan joined what are now 135 Collegiate Recovery communities on campuses all over the country. While they vary in size from small student-run organizations to large embedded university programs, the aim is the same: to help students stay sober while also thriving in college.
“It shouldn’t be that a young person has to choose to either be sober or go to college,” said Mary Jo Desprez, who started Michigan’s Collegiate Recovery Program as the director of Michigan’s Wolverine Wellness department. “These kids, who have the courage to see their problem early on, have the right to an education, too, but need support,” she said, calling it a “social justice, diversity issue.” Matthew Statman, the full-time clinical social worker who has run Michigan’s program since it began in 2012, added, “We want them to feel proud, not embarrassed, by their recovery.”
At the panel presentation, Ms. Britt, who temporarily dropped out of Michigan as an undergraduate, shared with the students her anxiety when she finally sobered up and decided to return to campus. “I had so many memories of throwing up in bushes here,” she said. “I wanted to have fun, but I also had no idea how to perform without partying.”
Ms. Cederna also remembers what it felt like to return to Michigan sober her senior year. Not only did she lose most of her friends (“Everyone I knew on campus drank,” she said), but she also dropped out of her sorority (“I was only in it to drink,” she said). “I ended up alone in the library a lot watching Netflix,” she said. Molly Payton, 24 (now a senior who once fell off an eight-foot ledge, drunk and high at a party), said, “I read all the Harry Potter books alone in my room my first months clean.”
Everything changed, however, when these students learned there were other students facing the same issues. Ms. Cederna first found Students for Recovery, a small student-run organization that, until the Collegiate Recovery Program began, was the only available support group on Michigan’s campus besides local 12-step meetings, most of which tend toward an older demographic.
“Through S.F.R., I ended up having five new friends,” she said of the organization, which still exists but is now run by the 25 to 30 Collegiate Recovery Program students; both groups meet every other week in the health center. The main difference between the two is that students in the Collegiate Recovery Program have to already be sober and sign a “commitment contract” that they will stay clean throughout college through a well-outlined plan of structure. Students for Recovery is aimed at those who are still seeking recovery, may be further into their recovery or want to support others in recovery.
When a young student incredulously asked the panel, “How do you possibly socialize in college without alcohol?” Ms. Britt, Collegiate Recovery Program’s social chairwoman, rattled off a list of its activities — sober tailgates, a pumpkin-carving night, volleyball games, dance parties, study groups, community service projects and even a film screening of “The Anonymous People” that attracted some 600 students. “But we also just hang out together a lot,” she said.
Indeed, looking around the organization’s lounge just before the holidays (a small, cordoned-off corner on the fourth floor of the health center, minimally decorated with ratty couches, a table and a small bookshelf stocking titles like “Wishful Drinking” and “Smashed”), it was hard to believe some of these young adults were once heroin addicts who had spent time in jail. On the contrary, they looked like model students, socializing over soft drinks and snacks as they celebrated one student who had earned back his suspended license.
“By far the biggest benefit to our students in the recovery program is the social component,” said Mr. Statman, who is hoping a current development campaign may provide more funding. (The program is currently supported by a mandatory student health tuition fee.)
The Collegiate Recovery Program was established at Texas Tech decades ago, and it is now one of the largest, with 120 recovery students enrolled (along with Rutgers University and Augsburg College in Minneapolis). Thanks to a $3 million endowment, the Texas Tech program now offers scholarships as well as substance-free trips abroad. The students there have access to an exclusive lounge outfitted with flat-screen TVs, a pool table and a Ping-Pong table, kitchen, study carrels and a seminar room. Entering freshmen in recovery even have their own dormitory.
“We found that simply putting them on the substance-free halls didn’t work,” said Kitty Harris, who, until recently, was the director for more than a decade of Texas Tech’s program (she remains on the faculty). “Most of the kids on substance-free floors are just there to make their parents happy.” (The Michigan students in the recovery program mostly live off campus for the same reason; they do not have their own housing.)
“Most students begin experimenting innocently in college with drugs and alcohol,” said Mr. Statman, who just celebrated his 13th year in recovery. “Then there are the ones who react differently. They are not immoral, pleasure-seeking hedonists, they are simply vulnerable, and for their whole life.”
Rates of substance-use disorders triple from 5.2 percent in adolescence to 17.3 percent in early adulthood, according to 2013 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It thus makes this developmental stage critical to young people’s future.
It is at the drop-in Students for Recovery meetings where one often sees nervous new faces. At the beginning of one meeting at Michigan last semester, a young woman introduced herself as, “One day sober.” Shortly afterward, a young man spoke up, “I am five days sober.” Danny (who asked that his last name not be published), a graduating recovery program senior applying to medical schools, later explained an important tenet all of them know from their various 12-step programs. “The most important person in the room is the new person,” he said, adding that after the Students for Recovery meetings, members try to approach any new participants, directing them to the C.R.P. website and to Mr. Statman, who is always on call for worried students.
“In the same way a diabetic might not always get their sugar levels right, part of addiction is relapsing, and we really don’t want our students to see that as a failure if it happens,” said Mr. Statman, adding that it is often the other students in the program who tell him if they suspect a student is using again.
Jake Goldberg, 22, now a junior, arrived at Michigan three years ago as a freshman already in recovery. “I did really well the first five months,” he said. “I was sober. I was loud and proud on panels, but I had internal reservations. I had few friends and felt like I wanted to be more a part of the school.” He recalled that in the spring of his freshman year, he suddenly found himself trying heroin for the first time. “I should have died,” he said, remembering how he woke up 14 hours later, dazed and bruised.
After straightening up, Mr. Goldberg relapsed again his sophomore year when he thought he might be able to have just one drink. “That drink led to drugs and to more drinking,” he said, remembering how Mr. Statman and Ms. Desprez called him into their office one day. “They told me this is not going to end well,” he said. Now sober two years, Mr. Goldberg said: “I now live recovery with all the structure, but I also am in a prelaw fraternity. When they drink a beer, I drink a Red Bull.”
Ms. Miller echoed Mr. Goldberg’s feelings over coffee one day on the Michigan campus. “Most of us did not get sober just to go to meetings all the time,” she said. “We want to live life too.” She also said that socializing with nonrecovery students is still challenging. “I went to a small party recently where everyone was eating pot edibles and drinking top-shelf liquor,” she said. “I got a bit squirrely in my head and had to leave.”
But now students in the Collegiate Recovery Program have a new place in Ann Arbor they can frequent: Brillig Dry Bar, a pop-up, alcohol-free spot that serves up spiced pear sodas and cranberry sours and features live jazz. And in March, four of the students in the program are joining dozens of recovery students from other colleges on a six-day, five-night, “Clean Break” in Florida, arranged by Blue Community, an organization that hosts events and vacations for young adults in recovery. (The vacation package includes music, guest speakers, beach sports and daily transport to local 12-step meetings.)
“My hope is that we continue to get more students who need a safe zone to our social events,” said Ms. Britt, who is about to publicize a “sober skating night” in March at the university ice rink. “They would see you can have a lot of fun in college without drinking.
“And honestly, we really do have fun.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 1, 2015, on page ST14 of the New York edition with the headline: Not the Usual Party (This One’s Sober).