“You were the first-ever president of the student recovery group at Penn State University,” I said to a woman I’ll call Sarah. “That meant you were one of the first people to talk publicly about your own addiction in a university with almost 100,000 undergraduate students. And you were only 21 years old. How did that feel?”

She was surprisingly blasé. “I kinda compare it to coming out [as gay]. I came out in high school and there was nobody else then, either.”

I considered the comparison for awhile after we spoke, thought it was a good one. A few weeks later, I learned that October 11 was National Coming Out Day.

As a result, I found myself watching a two-minute video on coming out that illustrates the massive shift in American attitudes about sexual orientation in the last 25 years. It’s really shocking to see the fear and anxiety associated with being gay in the 1990s. And but a minute later, as the video ends, stylish young people are grinning, tossing off phrases like “I’m proud to be a black queer woman,” and “When you finally get to that point of acceptance, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Holy moly! How much has changed.

This is all so applicable to addiction and recovery. When Adam Lambert chuckles and says, “I am gay. And I’m very comfortable with it,” I look at 25 year-old Sarah and see the same level of confidence and security in the ways she talks about her recovery. I find myself imagining that being in recovery could be as shrug-worthy as being gay for a new generation of young people.

There’s reason to think that collegiate recovery programs can help make that happen.


When Sarah arrived at the State College campus of Penn State University, she said she knew it was a party school.  “And I knew I had a problem with drugs and alcohol.”

She entered school sober and relapsed after a year. At the time, there was no recovery community on campus whatsoever.

Penn State has more than 100,000 undergrads Credit: Steve Eng

Altogether, Penn State campuses have more than 100,000 undergrads.
Credit: Steve Eng

This is the kind of situation that parents worry about, said Susan Weiner, founder and CEO of Forging Futures, Inc. (and member of the IRETA Board of Directors).  Forging Futures is an organization in Pittsburgh that provides specialty consulting services for families of struggling teens and young adults.

“I was just talking to a mom whose kid is at a treatment program,” said Weiner. “These moms fast-forward, you know? ‘Well, after he finishes treatment, he’s going to go back to high school, and then college. What’s he going to do in college?’  How do you maintain your sobriety in college?  It’s pretty impossible without really good support.  So I handed her a magazine about collegiate recovery programs and told her there are options for support.”

Jason Whitney teaches in the College of Education at Penn State and helped start the College Recovery Community (CRC) in 2011. The types of concerns that Weiner described, he said, are quite valid.

“One of the things we talk about is that this is an especially demanding place to get sober because it’s an abstinence-hostile environment,” he told me.  “It’s not just that there are people who pressure you to drink and use drugs. There is this constant expectation in all kinds of social situations that you should be drinking or using drugs. It just wears people down. And yet students are forced to run this gauntlet if they want to have most middle class jobs.”

“This is not just about recovery; it’s about education.  It’s about getting through Penn State.”

Whitney encourages high school students in or seeking recovery (and their parents) to begin a relationship with the CRC a few months before they arrive on campus to ease their transition and up their chances of making it through college in one piece.


The CRC at Penn State is the spawn of the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech University. Based on the Texas Tech model, over two dozen other CRCs have formed at two- and four-year universities across the country.

CRCs throughout the US Courtesy of Texas Tech CSAR

CRCs throughout the US
Courtesy of Texas Tech CSAR

Each one is different, though. “CRCs are not all the same,” Whitney explained. “Some are run out of a counseling center, some out of student health services. Some of them are huge academic departments. Some of them have no place to meet. Some have directors who are therapists whereas others are just a loose informal group of students and it’s basically a student organization. And what are we? We’re like a community and a student organization and an alumni interest group all in one.”

The CRC at Penn State has three different arms:

The Collegiate Recovery Community, a program within student affairs designed to support students in the process of recovering from addiction.  As of now, to be an official member of the CRC, a Penn State student should be abstinent for 90 days and actively working a recovery program of some sort.

Lions in Recovery, an alumni interest group supporting students in recovery and university initiatives that foster recovery.  Current CRC students can utilize social and professional networking opportunities through Lions in Recovery.

Lions for Recovery, a student-run group that mobilizes students in recovery and those who support them. Lions for Recovery plans recreational and service-oriented activities.

When Sarah became the president of the student-run Lions for Recovery in 2011, she pulled certain ideas from the LGBTQ communities with whom she was already connected.  She’d seen firsthand that allies can strengthen and legitimize a movement, which is one of the reasons that Lions for Recovery encourages involvement from students who aren’t sober. She said, “I wanted to have a fun sober time.  And I know that a lot of people at Penn State don’t know how to do that.  What does it even look like not to drink?”

By hosting sober Halloween parties, sober tailgates, hiking and meditation outings, and a wealth of other events, Lions for Recovery modeled sober behavior for students who weren’t ready to abstain completely or for those who wanted alternatives to inebriated recreation.

Sarah has since graduated from Penn State, but Lions for Recovery and other elements of the Penn State CRC have grown and thrived since its founding in in 2011.  According to Whitney, who still manages the CRC, helping students who are trying to recover from addiction is “the hot thing in student affairs…It’s definitely a fast-growing movement right now.”

And it’s fashionable beyond the bounds of campus.  The CRC has been “a huge benefit to the young people’s recovery scene in State College,” said Whitney.  Because members of the CRC attend 12-step meetings in town, those meetings have become more attractive to high school and college-aged State College residents who don’t attend Penn State.

When Whitney moved to State College eight years ago, “You could go to meetings all week and never see a young person.” He laughed. “Now, some meetings are full of them!”


Earlier this year at the 5th Annual Collegiate Recovery Conference in Minneapolis, ONDCP Director of Demand Reduction David Mineta asked, “If almost 1 in 5 college-age people have a past year SUD, why aren’t we finding them?”

There’s no question that college age young adults, as a group, have been tricky to intervene with. Few seek out specialty treatment, says Harvard researcher John Kelly.  And compared with other age groups, 18-25 year olds who have received treatment for substance use disorders are more likely to experience co-occurring psychiatric problems, less likely to follow through with continuing care after treatment, and more likely to relapse in social contexts (Kelly, 2014).

Is it just me, or does the CRC at Penn State seem to offer a healthy, organic solution to some of these problems?  By creating a space where students in recovery can feel safe and supported, where students curious about recovery can learn and connect, and where resources for specialty treatment and mutual aid are readily available, CRCs seem to be a boon to college campuses whose efforts to curb binge drinking haven’t been terribly successful. And but for CRCs, the woodwork isn’t exactly brimming with innovative approaches to this problem.

CRCs seem to be a boon to college campuses whose efforts to curb binge drinking haven’t been terribly successful. And…the woodwork isn’t exactly brimming with innovative approaches to this problem.

Mineta has voiced similar suspicions that CRCs can improve public health campus-wide. At the Collegiate Recovery Campus, he urged the exploration of the extent to which college recovery programs can have a positive effect on campus norms and expectations.

Research on the individual-level effects of CRCs is underway. CSAR at Texas Tech has created a National Recovering Student Database to measure the effectiveness of CRCs, to track student performance through their participation in a CRC, and to analyze both early and long-term recovery in college students. Research also suggests that universities receive a substantial financial benefit from CRCs: if more than 40% of student attrition cases involve substance abuse, as some studies suggest, a campus “could potentially retain at least 2% of the tuition revenue that would predictably be lost due to substance abuse/addiction related drop-out in your first year of operation,” according to the Texas Tech CRC curriculum.

However, CRCs have not yet been studied for their far-reaching public health effects: as groups that attract young people toward low- and no risk substance use, change social norms, and connect students in-need with specialty treatment and mutual aid.

Do CRCs model healthy choices and change social norms? We don't know yet.

By modeling healthy choices, do CRCs change social norms? We don’t know yet. Credit: USDA


Penn State University is home to the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, a world class research center with an impressive portfolio.  But for years, there has been a disconnect between the recovery community in State College and the academic researchers at Penn State who study substance use disorder prevention, intervention, and treatment.

“I wanted to have a fun sober time. And I know that a lot of people at Penn State don’t know how to do that. What does it even look like not to drink?”
These days, according to Whitney, “There is a lot more awareness of alcohol and drug addiction at Penn State.” And before the CRC? “I’d look around and wonder how, with so many people working on the problem, could I count all of the students in recovery on one hand?”

This brings me back to the power of coming out and the lessons from the gay rights movement that are there for the taking.

Explains the Human Rights Coalition: “When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.”

This is some of the work that CRCs are doing: personalizing addiction issues in the broader community and attracting young people who may be in great need.


Recommended Resources

Students shouldn’t have to sacrifice school for recovery, or recovery for school (2014) Blogger Jason Schwartz muses on collegiate cultures of addiction and shares a great video on the University of Michigan Collegiate Recovery Program

Recovery in Young Adulthood: What do we know, what do we need to know? (2014) Researcher John Kelly’s whole slideshow presentation from this year’s Collegiate Recovery Conference is excellent, tells an interesting story

Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech replication models and curriculum materials Information about pitching a campus recovery program to higher-ups and how to build one from the ground up

Penn State Collegiate Recovery Community website

Questions to Ask Treatment Programs (2012) An easy-to-use consumer worksheet for calling treatment centers providing adolescent services developed by the Treatment Research Institute at the Partnership at Drugfree.org

Forging Futures Therapeutic and educational consultants for struggling youth and young adults

#1 Party School (2009) This American Life radio program on State College the year it was voted #1 party school in the country