College living comes, often, with access to alcohol and recreational drugs, a particular challenge for students who struggle with addiction. In response, more universities are following a model established by Rutgers University almost 30 years ago: creating "sober dorms" and other options for substance-free students.
“It was the first time in my life that I made friends outside of like 'let’s go spark this joint,'” said Sara, a Rutgers junior who lives in a recovery apartment on the school's Newark campus.
When Sara started at Rutgers, her life revolved around partying at fraternity houses and using lots of drugs. Once she decided to get clean, and joined the recovery community, she said her college experience completely changed.
“I can go to concerts today and like people are drinking around me and I’m okay with that,” said Sara. “I have the chance to be like a new Sara today.”
She is one of 23 students currently in the Recovery Housing program at Rutgers which includes the Newark apartment and three houses on the New Brunswick campus. Eligible students must prove they're at least 90 days sober and promise to attend two 12-step meetings a week.
“We’re providing them with recovery support for four years,” said Lisa Laitman who started the first recovery dorm in 1988. “And that’s a recipe for success.”
Over the years, hundreds of people have gone through the program. In 2008 the university started tracking the students after graduation; it found their recovery rate was about 95 percent.
Because of this success, Rutgers is seen as a model for other schools across the country. Last year, New Jersey passed a law that required all state colleges and universities to offer recovery housing if at least a quarter of the students live on campus.
“There were no models when I started this,” said Laitman. “It was a lot of learning and now we are part of national associations. We share all the time, we talk to other schools.”
She said a key lesson she passes along is to create a community for the students. It has to be about more than maintaining sobriety and attending weekly meeting requirements, she said. The kids should make friends and have fun.
To that end, Rutgers uses a grant from the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction services to help fund an annual retreat and group activities, like paintball outings as well as cultural and sporting events.
Eva is a 32-year-old senior who has lived in the house for three years. She said her twenties were a blur of opioids, heroin and crack as well as jail time for several felonies. After getting sober, Eva worked as a waitress living paycheck to paycheck. She learned about the Recovery House at a weekly meeting.
“I had honestly felt that the door to going to college had closed on me,” said Eva. “For many reasons, social, financial, age, whatever. And I was proven wrong.”