To help students recovering from substance abuse, the College of New Jersey last school year set aside substance-free housing exclusively for their use, expecting to create a supportive community.
The response was, to put it mildly, weak: Only one student signed up, living in “Lion’s House” for one semester.
“We opened up the door and we thought they would come flooding in,” said Christopher Freeman, who joined TCNJ last year to create and run the collegiate recovery program.
After all, Freeman said, student surveys showed about 280 students on campus, 4 percent of the population, identified as being in recovery. Why wouldn’t they join a supportive, substance-free housing community?
“It didn’t happen that way,” he said.
As concern about addiction has grown in recent years, fueled by a high-profile boom in opioid and opiate abuse, some colleges and universities have begun evaluating their existing counseling and support systems, looking to expand them as need warrants.
As written, the law currently applies to Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus, Ramapo College, the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, Rowan University, and Stockton University.
Only Rutgers-New Brunswick had a recovery housing program when the law was signed; it had created its program nearly three decades prior. TCNJ’s was the second.
“The vision is to have a house where students in recovery can live together; where they can support one another; where they can build community together, enjoy substance-free activities together,” Freeman said. “We sometimes refer to it as an oasis on campus, a sanctuary for recovery for students.”
But with no rush of students, Freeman said, the college quickly learned filling beds has to come after creating community in other ways, as part of a broader recovery program.
“We were really putting the cart before the horse, and we didn’t know,” said Angela Lauer Chong, TCNJ’s dean of students and head of health and wellness programs.
In December 2014, the state authorized a five-year, $245,000-a-year grant to TCNJ to create a recovery program and examine its campus culture with an eye toward prevention.
TCNJ’s campus recovery program includes group and individual counseling and Lion’s House for students in recovery, but it also looks to develop a broader community.
A “RECreate Your Night” initiative provided substance-free activities such as sports tournaments and games every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; a substance-free “Better Alternatives Community” student group met several times over the year, growing from three students to 30; and the college this year is providing substance-free housing to students. None of those are limited exclusively to students in recovery, Freeman said, because one of his goals is to help normalize substance-free lifestyles and provide a broader network of students who choose to be sober.
“We’ve laid the foundation, hopefully we can build on that,” Freeman said. “What my dream would be is to have those communities interacting very closely.”
TCNJ’s lessons — create a community first; not everyone will want to be in housing — are familiar to Lisa Laitman, who heads Rutgers-New Brunswick’s Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program.
When she created the campus’ Recovery House in 1988, Laitman said, students were wary.
“Initially they were actually not thrilled with the idea,” she said. “They thought that there would be a big sign on the building, they thought they would be singled out, and they thought it would be more stigmatizing to be on campus in a special housing unit.”
But Laitman happened to have begun the rest of her recovery program first — “not because I knew to do it, but because that was just the way it was. I created a recovery community before I started the recovery house” — and the success of the larger recovery program created a community of students who were willing to move into Recovery House.
Rutgers-New Brunswick also received a five-year state grant, aimed at growing its programs.
Today, Laitman counts about 60 students in the broader recovery program, half of whom live in the dedicated housing.
Freeman envisions something similar at TCNJ, focusing on the larger recovery and substance-free communities and hopefully bringing some of those students into housing. And like Rutgers’ Recovery House, which is anonymous and the location kept quiet, TCNJ’s Lion’s House will be a townhouse with no external indication of its role.
As a TCNJ student in recovery who got back on track thanks to a supportive community, Jesse Dariano, 32, of Mount Laurel, said he was glad to see the college make a concerted effort to build a group.
“I would have loved to have this a few years ago when I failed out of college,” said Dariano, who left Camden County College with a 1.1 grade-point average.
Then he got sober, made connections with the right people, and went back to school.
“I was able to jump up to a 3.3, get enrolled into an honors college, get president’s list,” said Dariano, now a junior studying psychology at TCNJ. “It’s amazing what you can do when you have the right community and the right people around you.”
Jesse Dariano, a The College of New Jersey student in recovery, outside campus townhouses, some of which will serve as housing for students in recovery. ED HILLE / Staff
Dariano won’t be moving into Lion’s House — he lives in Mount Laurel with his wife — but is in the college’s recovery community and will be doing his best to publicize the availability of housing, he said.
“I don’t think people were saying no,” he said of the lack of demonstrated interest, “as much as they weren’t aware of its existence.”
Elizabeth Connolly, the acting commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, said she hopes TCNJ’s programs can raise awareness, changing the culture on campus.
“We make it OK for other people to come forward and acknowledge that they, too, are having a problem, and can make them more comfortable while taking help, taking opportunities,” she said. “It’s creating a culture of acceptance.
“Many, many years ago, addiction had such a stigma attached to it, and people were reluctant to seek treatment,” she said. “And now, we haven’t really eliminated stigma — there’s still stigma out there — but we chip away at it as we create these programs.”