In mid-July, the Marvin Center at George Washington University was bursting with college students in various forms of predictive behaviors, lounging on lobby furniture, hurrying by on cell phones. But on this particular day, most of the students at the Marvin Center were also participating in the eighth annual National Collegiate Recovery Conference, a meeting where students, advocates, vendors, and experts come together to explore how best to support students recovering from drug and alcohol disorders.
The three-day conference of presentations and workshops featured an exhibit hall where vendors, many that treat young people with addictions, host booths. One exhibitor was the Haven at College, a national provider of on-campus addiction treatment and recovery support services.
Tending the booth were two young women who seemed continuously engaged in conversation with enthusiastic visitors. On their break, I had the opportunity to speak with them about Haven’s success in helping colleges provide support for recovering students as well as the thousands who are still struggling.
Aly Ries is Haven’s Director of East Coast Development. Both Ries and her colleague, Sophie Pyne, are passionate advocates for the support Haven provides. Their narrative on Haven, as well as their own stories, provided an eye-opening acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of addiction on college campuses, as well as a testament to the benefits of adopting creative strategies to address it.
Haven at College was created by Holly Sherman and Sharon Weber, who met more than ten years ago in a sober housing residence in California. They are both in long-term recovery. As master’s level professionals who often hid their addiction from their high-performing communities, they related well to young people striving to complete their degrees while challenged by both addiction and stigma. As business people, Sherman and Webber also recognized an enormous untapped demand to provide on-campus support for students and parents.
In 2012, they launched Haven at College with a sober residence hall at the University of Southern California. Since then, Haven has expanded to six schools in California and the mid-Atlantic with ambitious plans to break into to the Northeast.
Haven now has three distinct programs that represent a continuum of support for students: Haven Recovery Residences for students who live with other recovering students and are supported by a resident director, a recovery counselor, and regular 12-step meetings; the Haven Outpatient Centers, which provide on-campus treatment for students who need to address their substance use, providing both “step-up” or “step-down” services; and Haven Mentoring and Monitoring, a harm reduction program that helps students concerned about their substance use address their behaviors.
“We believe that no college student should have to choose between their recovery and their college experience,” said Ries. “So often we see students who recognize they have a problem, maybe left school to go into treatment and are then faced with a choice: ’Do I protect my recovery and stay home? Or do I go back to school to pursue my degree knowing all of the risk factors surrounding me?’”
According to Ries, Haven helps eliminate that painful choice for students in two distinct ways: One is by offering innovative programming that is targeted specifically to their age and circumstance, something young adults don’t always get in traditional 12-step programs.
The other is by combatting the stigma associated with substance abuse and sobriety at college by showing that being in recovery does not mean you need to forgo your college experience.
The latter challenge is particularly difficult, as anyone who has lived on a college campus would understand. College, for many, is still regarded as four years to have the “time of your life,” with substance-based partying at the center of it.
Ries believes it is why Haven’s student-specific counseling with peer mentoring is so important.
“Our counselors are talking to kids about what it’s like to be a 19-year-old on a Saturday night and not drink or use drugs; how to get through finals without study drugs when they are floating through the library; and how to get over social anxiety when you’re in a room full of peers who can numb theirs with alcohol,” she said.
Like the resident directors in the Haven homes, Ries has lived experience. She begins her own story by talking about her loving parents of Irish descent who rarely drank. She was always a good student, but like many who experience addiction, Ries quickly found that her propensity to drink frequently and in large amounts would lead to major problems in her personal life.
After beginning to experience consequences, she was determined to get sober. She moved forward and earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania.
Ries’ colleague, Sophie Pyne, is also in recovery and is a former resident at the Haven House at University of Southern California, where she used to work as a House Manager. She is now the Case Manager at the Haven Outpatient Center.
Pyne and Ries could be any recent graduates, of any college. Their relatability works to combat something they call “othering,” a sense that problems like addiction happen to “other” people with different, distancing circumstances.
Pyne works on campus with Haven staff and college administrators, giving her a ground-level view of how Haven can benefit both students and schools.
One of Haven’s strengths, they say, is their ability to customize their model to the unique characteristics of any school. Haven begins the campus engagement process with a community mapping effort that gauges the assets and gaps that exist for students. They then make recommendations that are either adopted or adjusted, according to the need. Some schools only choose one program where others incorporate all three along the continuum.
Pyne says a good part of her work involves understanding and satisfying the needs of administrators – leaders in student affairs, student counseling, athletics, and student conduct – the people for whom a referral to Haven could make all the difference for a student they’re concerned about.
For these administrators, and their provosts and presidents, Haven also offers a solution to a myriad of problems associated with substance use in college – from sexual violence to performance and graduation rates.
Excessive drinking has been shown to lead to academic problems, including missing classes and receiving lower grades. Studies have shown that students who use alcohol and drugs are more likely to have disruptions in their college careers and fail to graduate. Every year, schools lose thousands of students to addiction and untreated mental health issues because they can’t offer transitional support for students in recovery or struggling with their addiction.
Considering it is estimated that 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, many colleges are beginning to ask, “What can we do to prevent these problems from happening?”
While Haven is not a solution for everyone at every school (cost and private pay are still issues, though one insurance carrier does cover some services), those who use Haven use it robustly.
“Our students are the ones that can disrupt the stigma on campus and our campus partners know that,” said Pyne. “We speak to sororities and fraternities, resident assistants that live in the dorms, and student advocate groups that help us spread the message that recovery is possible on a college campus and that The Haven has programs available to assist students who may be struggling.
There is a long road ahead to fully tackle stigma issues related to college substance use and to get all constituents to understand the harm in tolerating hard partying on campus.
But students are buying into the solution. As one student at a soon-to-be established Haven school said, “I’m for anything that could have kept my best friend here.”