Building Recovery in Solo Cup Land

Universities and students team up to fight drug and alcohol addiction and the discriminatory culture surrounding it by creating collegiate recovery programs.

people speaking on phone at desk people speaking on phone at desk

Middle Earth, a multifaceted program, includes peer wellness ambassadors, peer wellness coaches, and an anonymous mental-health hotline. Above, Dori Brown (front) and Robert Cardom (back) during a hotline shift. Photo by Sam Berlin.

On her 21st birthday, Jennifer Olmsted woke up in a hospital bed. The previous night, with her friends at the University of Miami, she celebrated her 21st birthday and newfound legal-drinking status with a big night out. She mixed alcohol with cocaine and Xanax, causing her heart to come dangerously close to stopping. “My parents were told that they had to come down immediately because the doctor wasn’t sure if I was going to live,” Olmsted says.

But her battle with substance use began long before her birthday trip to the hospital. She says thousands of seemingly trivial decisions led her to that point. A Chatham, N.J. native, Olmsted grew up a self-proclaimed nerd, dedicated to taking voice lessons and pleasing her parents — a “goody two-shoes.” She formed a negative perception of substances from a young age, watching her older brother abuse them and resenting the disruption it caused her parents. But like many, Olmsted struggled with self-esteem as a young girl, particularly in middle school. A tall, white, curly-haired brunette, Olmsted thinks her insecurities made her more susceptible to peer pressure. “I thought that doing drugs would make me more popular, more cool, that kind of cliché thing — and, honestly, it did,” she recalls.

“I thought that doing drugs would make me more popular, more cool, that kind of cliché thing — and, honestly, it did.”

Freshman year of high school, through what she calls a “classic, peer-pressure story,” Olmsted decided to smoke weed. Sophomore and junior year, she began experimenting with other drugs like molly, psychedelics, and cocaine. Eventually substance abuse served as the unifying force within her high-school social circle. Olmsted admits that her drug abuse hurt her GPA and even caused her to drop several honors courses. “I definitely left high school a different person than I entered,” she says. A few days after graduating, when a police officer pulled Olmsted over for rolling a stop sign, he mistook an empty bag of cocaine in her car for an empty bag of weed. She received six months of probation for a marijuana paraphernalia charge. “That was a first serious slap on the wrist,” Olmsted says. “Then I went to Miami, and things kind of escalated from there.”

An aspiring vocalist, Olmsted decided to attend the University of Miami for its contemporary voice program — but the school’s party-centric atmosphere played a role in that decision too. After moving in, she found a group of friends who used drugs regularly. Two months into her junior year, she overdosed. But that birthday hospital stay sent her life in a different direction. She dropped out of college and enrolled in a full-time treatment program at Cumberland Heights in Nashville. There, she watched a documentary called The Anonymous People that featured a segment on the Rutgers University collegiate recovery program. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “I was sitting on the couch watching it. I said, ‘I’m going to go there. I’m going to do that.’” The thought of returning to college just 40 minutes north of her hometown in New Jersey, while integrating recovery seemed ideal. And she did it, graduating from Rutgers in December 2019 with an English degree and three years of sobriety.

A Hidden Population of Untreated Students

Olmsted is one of the 2,000 to 4,000 college students enrolled in a collegiate recovery program (CRP) for substance-use disorders every year, according to research by Austin Brown, a Syracuse University doctoral student in social sciences and the person behind the creation of SU’s budding recovery program. According to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), a CRP is a college or university-provided, supportive environment within the campus culture that reinforces the decision to engage in a lifestyle of recovery from substance use. Like Olmstead, Brown is a person in recovery. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and addiction studies, he graduated in 2014 from Texas Tech University, one of the first American universities to embrace a recovery program. He then went on to earn his masters in social work at the University of Vermont. Before attending Texas Tech and joining its recovery program, he had flunked out of six institutions. “I had a 1.7 GPA, I hadn’t been in school for 10 years, I had a year of recovery, and this program at Texas Tech was willing to give me a scholarship,” Brown says. He earned a 4.0 his first semester and, by his last year, he had earned a complete academic scholarship. That experience led Brown to focus his research on students in recovery, models for CRPs, and their effectiveness. Around one in four college students will meet criteria of having a substance use disorder (SUD), or experience serious health consequences related to alcohol consumption, according to Brown’s research.

How Alcohol Undermines Your Mental Health

But only about 10% of students who meet the criteria for SUD pursue recovery, Brown says. He also points out this number doesn’t encapsulate the total amount of students struggling with substance use in college. This is due to the normalization of substance abuse on college campuses. Additionally, measures of abuse are hard to generalize, as alcohol and drugs affect every individual differently.

“Changing an addictive behavior is super hard because your brain’s reward system has been hijacked by the substance,” says Denise Hein, director of the Center of Alcohol and Substance Use Studies at Rutgers. “Your brain has been altered so that you have physiological symptoms that make it harder for you to make that decision to change the behavior.” Changing these behaviors is even more challenging in a college environment, where substance use and alcohol consumption are inevitable parts of socialization. This is part of what makes collegiate recovery culture unique. “All the things that other students believe that college is about have no bearing on what you and your friends are doing — the activities that you engage in like sober tailgating, fitness, movies, and hanging out together,” Brown says. “You have this community that shares something that’s totally different than what they share with everybody else.”

“You have this community that shares something that’s totally different than what they share with everybody else.”

CRPs increase at around 25 new programs per year, according to Brown’s studies. Tim Rabolt, the executive director of ARHE, attests to this. “In February of 2012, there were 14 member schools and now there’s 140. It literally grew 10 times in eight years on the membership side,” Rabolt says. Brown attributes this surge to the hidden population of untreated students fighting for resources that address the varying degrees of SUDs and addiction on college campuses. But recovery programs can serve a multitude of purposes, as substance use disorders are often associated with mental-health disorders. “Collegiate recovery programs provide a model for how to support not only people that are in recovery, but also people who are pursuing recovery for their mental health,” says Thomas Kimball, the director for the Center of Collegiate Recovery Communities at Texas Tech, Brown’s alma mater. Kimball argues that the peer-based structure of CRPs is what makes them successful in treating both SUDs and mental-health issues. “There are not enough clinicians in the world to see everybody that’s suffering from anxiety or depression or from their substance use disorders,” Kimball says. “But there are enough peers, and peers can be powerful. Particularly when they’re trained, they can be powerful in making a huge difference to people in recovery.” The most progress happens when students in recovery lean on one another and vocalize the support they need from their universities.

That’s how the recovery program at Rutgers University began. “There were four students who were actually pretty vocal,” says Lisa Laitman, director of the program and founder of the university’s Recovery House. “They went to some administrators and they talked about their recovery. They said that they really needed support on campus.” With the help of passionate staff and university endowments, the university created its recovery program and sober-living dorm. But it took years for the program to flourish into what it is today. When Laitman started at Rutgers in 1983, she was the only alcohol counselor on staff for all three of the Rutgers campuses, which served 50,000 students. Now, Laitman runs one of the nation’s longest-running collegiate-recovery programs. The secret to its success, she claims, is the students. “That’s what a lot of self-help is about, people who are in recovery helping people who are new in recovery,” she says. “Sometimes it remains more of a mentor relationship or a helper relationship, but more often, it becomes more of a friendship.”

Recovery Roundup

syracuse logo

Syracuse University
Syracuse, N.Y.

The Orange Recovery Community

The Orange Recovery Community

Began: 2019

Mission: To create a more peer-driven support model focusing on a strong, positive recovery community for those struggling with substance use disorders

Signature Services: On-campus meeting space, sober events, peer mentoring, recovery facilitator training scholarships

Participants: 4

Graduates: None yet

Contact: Email Austin Brown Austin Brown or SU Disability Cultural Center.

rutgers logo

Rutgers University
Newark, N.J.

Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program

Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program

Began: 1983

Mission: A focus on a clinical approach to recovery

Signature Services: Alcohol and drug counseling along with dedicated, on-campus recovery housing that provides access to resources and expects students to have a sponsor and attend 12-step meetings twice a week

Participants: 25

Graduates: Not disclosed

Contact: Call Keith Murphy at 848-229-4762 or 848-932-7884 to speak to a counselor, or email Recovery Housing.

texas tech logo

Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas

Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities

Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities

Began: 1986

Focus: Peer-to-peer relationships between students and the building of trustworthy relationships between students and staff; they also offer programming that focuses on eating disorder recovery support

Signature Services: Designated dorm floors for students in the program and a commitment to academic performance that includes an abroad program in Prague, Czech Republic, scholarships, and resources

Participants: 125

Graduates: 700+

Contact: To apply for this program or find more information, visit the program’s website.

albany logo

University at Albany
Albany, N.Y.

The University at Albany Collegiate Recovery Program inside the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program

The University at Albany Collegiate Recovery Program inside the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program

Began: 2019 (its Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program began in 1970)

Focus: Foster a community of students with similar goals, aspirations while supporting alcohol and drug prevention

Signature Services: A peer-assistance program that includes a help hotline and supports educational goals, seeks to help developing coping skills for emotional and social issues

Participants: 130

Graduates: 200-300

Contact: For more information, visit the program’s website.

Meet the Executive Board

The 61% Project asked some of the board members of Middle Earth, the University of Albany’s student-run, mental-health program, to share how they became involved with the program. Click the audio button below each portrait to hear their responses.


Danielle Rambuss


Dori Brown

Kassandra Sturm

Kassandra Sturm

Joy Battoe

Joy Battoe

Nicole Bushlow

Nicole Bushlow

Ally Robins

Ally Robins

The Challenges of Collegiate Recovery Programs

But maintaining momentum in recovery programs can prove difficult. “The first few years are really stressful because you may have a group for students who are really gung-ho, and you have some natural leaders, and then they graduate,” Laitman says. “Then, the next group who’s coming up is not quite so energetic.” Even more hesitation toward CRPs stems from college administrators, as stigma toward people with SUDs and addictions can be a pervasive challenge. “We don’t want to talk about [recovery] because we don’t want to say that we’ve got these students on our campus,” Rutgers Recovery Counselor Keith Murphy says. Private institutions tend to be less progressive with CRPs since they attract students from middle- and upper-class families, where the stigma toward recovery is more commonplace. “What happens is that there is a class difference. There is no way to dress that up,” Brown says. “That carries over into recovery, and it carries over both structurally and ideologically.” But some schools may no longer have a choice. New Jersey, for example, passed legislation requiring state universities with a large portion of on-campus housing to provide sober-living facilities, according to the 2017 President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

Beyond the stigma, those pursuing recovery also battle the culture and socialization issues Rutgers’ director Hein mentioned that play out on campus across the country. “If you walk down the street and you walk around campus, you might smell marijuana,” Laitman says. “You may go to a dorm and people are drinking. We don’t have a community that’s protected, right?” This helps explain the effectiveness of the Rutgers Recovery House, which is neither a treatment facility nor a halfway house. It is simply a regular dorm that houses 40 students in recovery every semester, fostering a close-knit community of peers in recovery. Although not every recovery program exists as a housing facility such as at Rutgers, ARHE suggests that CRPs provide a dedicated physical space for students in recovery. Even amidst quarantine and social-distancing laws brought on by COVID-19, schools such as Texas Tech have provided a 24-7 virtual Zoom lounge for their participants.

“It’s more about supporting them in that process, whether it’s moving towards abstinence or just sustaining recovery with what they’ve identified works for them.”

However, ample resources fail to be the campus norm. When Amanda Shpigler struggled with SUD as an undergrad at University at Albany, she found it difficult to receive the help she needed. After seeking treatment at Albany’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), she continued to struggle. Eventually, university officials told her they were unable to meet her needs and advised her to seek treatment elsewhere, she says. Now, after recovering from a heroin overdose and spending 10 years in and out of college, Shpigler graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and has returned to her alma mater as a graduate student spearheading the creation of its first CRP.

Her goal now is to provide resources for students like her, ensuring that they receive recovery support on campus, continue their education, and find a community of peers facing similar challenges. With the help of the university’s student-run, mental-health program, Middle Earth, Shpigler is developing a CRP that addresses varying levels of addiction. Middle Earth is a multifaceted program that includes an anonymous mental-health hotline, peer wellness ambassadors who advocate on behalf of the organization, and peer wellness coaches who provide individualized guidance for struggling students. “One of the things that I think makes this program special in particular is its association with Middle Earth, and we are in the process of integrating this program with peer services that have been on our campus for 50 years,” Shpigler says.

people having a meeting

The university’s student-run, mental-health program Middle Earth works to develop a campus recovery program that addresses every level of addiction. Above, the program’s executive board meets to discuss fundraising opportunities. Photo by Sam Berlin.

Reimagining the process of recovery on college campuses serves as an integral part of Shpigler’s strategy. “There has been a new movement in the last five to 10 years that is shifting the overall focus from treating the illness to supporting the recovery,” Shpigler says. This philosophy will allow Albany’s CRP to develop a harm reduction model, which encourages safer practices in regards to drug and alcohol use. The program would include options such as syringe exchanges so that students can evade bloodborne illnesses and receive proper education about the risks involved with substance abuse and addiction. “The primary goal is to respect that some students are not mentally ready for recovery or in a place where total abstinence is something that works for them,” Sphigler says. “It’s more about supporting them in that process — whether it’s moving towards abstinence or just sustaining recovery with what they’ve identified works for them.”

Albany’s CRP remains in the development process. Currently, they offer recovery support groups led by professional staff, mutual aid groups that function similarly to 12-step meetings, and education on substance use, recovery, leadership, and community service. They hope to do a showing of The Anonymous People and host a question-and-answer panel about changing the face of recovery to help remove the stereotypes surrounding it. “We want to be there for the person who is unsure or unwilling to reach out for help because they’re not sure what other people will think about them,” Sphigler says. “We hope that they’ll feel like they have this safe space to go to, that they are supported, and that people aren’t going to judge them.”

The Increasing Attention to Measuring Success, Diversity

Although those connected to CRPs seek to support the entire student body, they often exclude marginalized groups from these recovery opportunities. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, written by former director of the Texas Tech recovery program, Kitty Harris, and the current director, Thomas Kimball, the average age of a person participating in a CRP is 26 (many students in recovery have returned to college after dropping or failing out of one or more institutions). Males make up the majority of the CRP population (only 43% of participants identify as female despite Education Department statistics that show 56% of college students are female). And about 91% of CRP participants identify as white. “The field itself is recognizing this issue and is making efforts to try to reach out to marginalized populations,” Kimball says. He also acknowledges that the historic, institutional racism that exists in society also informs recovery — the people who possess the ability to seek treatment are typically those who possess financial and familial resources, and those people tend to be white. So seeking recovery and being a person of color creates added disparity, inequity. Universities have begun to address diversity by connecting with recovery programs in local communities, hiring staff from marginalized groups, or overriding admissions processes to allow more students of color into recovery programs, universities are beginning to address the lack of diversity among CRPs, Kimball says.

Along with measuring programs’ attention to assisting marginalized communities, Harris says schools measure the success of their CRPs in two ways: GPA and relapse rate. “At the time that I was there, our average GPA was 3.2. We had a 100% graduation rate. 90% of our graduates graduated with honors,” she says. Harris jokes that her colleagues used to make fun of her for meticulously handwriting every painstaking detail regarding a student’s relapse in a legal notepad so that she could have her own personal record of student relapses. Her ultimate goal was to ensure that Texas Tech’s recovery rate did not fall below 80%, she says. According to Harris and Kimball’s research, as of 2015, the national average relapse rate reached as low as 8% within the collegiate recovery population. These positive results encourage more universities to emulate respected programs. Recently, Sphigler visited Rutgers in order to tour and learn more about the recovery housing they provide their students. “Their dorm is just beautiful,” Sphigler says. “And really conducive to meeting student needs.” The community boasts a 95% recovery rate and average GPA of 3.2. In the next couple of years, Schpigler hopes to recreate this recovery-positive environment for Albany’s students. In terms of her institution’s progress, she credits passionate students who possess the courage to face their own addiction in order to help like-minded students.

SU’s Brown echoes the importance of students in the success of CRPs. “It’s hard for people who have never experienced recovery to really talk with people and provide them with the things that they might need in order to get well,” Brown says, crediting Texas Tech’s program with allowing him to engage with the university in ways he always wanted to but couldn’t because of his alcoholism. His recovery inspires him to create that opportunity for others. “By the time you graduate, you’re not only graduating with a degree, but now you’ve got four years of recovery,” he says. “Now you can go anywhere in the world and be successful both in your career and in your recovery.”

bulletin board

Middle Earth offers support groups, mutual aid groups, and educational opportunities to learn about substance abuse, recovery, leadership, and community service. Photo by Sam Berlin.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a free, confidential, 24/7 National Helpline with access to treatment referrals and information for people struggling with substance abuse. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for assistance.

The University at Albany has its own Middle Earth Outreach Hotline accessible through their website or by calling (518) 442-5777).

View a complete list of resources.