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At Rutgers, a haven for students in recovery

As more universities consider designated housing for students in recovery, Rutgers has been at it longer than most and serves as a national model.

Lisa Laitman, director of the Rutgers Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program, started recovery housing at Rutgers three decades ago. She talks about the program inside the recovery housing at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Two dozen students live in the on-campus residence hall, which is for students in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Lisa Laitman, director of the Rutgers Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program, started recovery housing at Rutgers three decades ago. She talks about the program inside the recovery housing at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Two dozen students live in the on-campus residence hall, which is for students in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTim Tai

One day last month, students and staff at the Rutgers University residence hall busily planned their spring-break hiking trip to the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee.

Then they turned their attention to party planning for the Super Bowl. Pizza, wings, and nachos were on the menu. Alcohol was not.

"We have some of the best parties here," said Johnny, 24, a public relations major from St. Paul, Minn. "Sober."

Johnny and the other students in the residence hall are all in recovery from use of alcohol or other substances, which can be tricky on a college campus where fun too often is associated with imbibing.

"Part of what helps people stay in recovery is that they have fun," said Lisa Laitman, director of the alcohol and other drug assistance program at Rutgers' New Brunswick campus.

Laitman started and oversees the school's collegiate recovery program, one of the nation's oldest and most highly regarded programs of its kind, with a recovery counselor, organized group activities, and access to counseling, health, and other services.

As the opioid crisis has crept onto college campuses nationwide, more schools are starting or exploring the possibility of adding recovery housing for students.

"I get calls every week from schools trying to get something up and consult with us," Laitman said.

Alcohol by far remains the most commonly used substance, Laitman said, but more students are seeking help for opioid use than 10 years ago. Like Johnny, who got hooked on OxyContin, then heroin.

Rutgers was in the forefront when it started the recovery program and opened housing in 1988. Other schools including Pennsylvania State University, have since added programs, but many campuses do not offer dedicated housing or space and staffing.

That's beginning to change. New Jersey is requiring all public universities with at least 25 percent of students living on campus to have recovery housing by fall 2019. The state recently gave grants to several schools, including Rutgers, to start or expand programs.

In Pennsylvania, universities, including West Chester, St. Joseph's, Drexel and Temple, are exploring the possibility.

"There are more and more students in recovery, all kinds of recovery, and it's a population we want to make sure we're serving," said Joseph Kender, a spokesman for St. Joseph's.

At Temple, student government last spring asked the school to explore options for recovery housing. After several current or former students died in 2017 of opioid overdoses — including one in the library — officials said in December they are considering it.

Laitman proposed Rutgers program when she arrived on campus and heard from students in recovery that they felt lonely and isolated, watching peers go out and knowing it was a part of college life they couldn't share.

"People felt very cut off," she said.

The drinking culture on college campuses hasn't changed much. About 20 percent of college students could be diagnosed with a drinking problem, according to national statistics, and researchers estimate that each year 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related injuries. Data on opioid use by college students is limited, but a 2016 survey of 870 students by the University of Michigan found that 3.8 percent reported misuse of narcotics other than heroin, 1.9 percent had misused OxyContin and 1.3 percent Vicodin; less than 1 percent had used heroin. Marijuana use, by comparison, was much more prevalent, at nearly 40 percent.

The Rutgers' residence hall offers not just a place to live but a built-in set of friends on a similar path. They play games, go on trips, study, speak about recovery at high schools — and have parties.

"Coming here, you almost instantly have 30 friends," said Krishan, 35, a social-work major from Clinton, who used heroin until 2015. "It definitely made things a lot easier."

Krishan first entered college 15 years ago but dropped out as his grades plummeted and he struggled with addiction. It took him a decade to commit to sobriety, he said.

The location of the residence is largely kept anonymous on the 17,000 student campus to protect its students privacy.

To live there, students must have abstained for at least 90 days and attend at least two 12-step meetings a week and one monthly house meeting. The residents hold each other accountable.

They pay the same room and board rates as other students on campus and have the option of living there year round.

Jennifer, a 22-year-old from Chatham, N.J., said she began using drugs and alcohol in high school, but things really spiraled when she went to college in Miami. Xanax and alcohol were her drugs of choice. The breaking point, she said, was when she overdosed on her 21st birthday.

She then entered a rehab in Nashville, where she heard about Rutgers' program.

"Being from New Jersey and wanting to complete college, I thought that was perfect," she said.

She's been sober 15 months.

"My parents don't exactly still trust me yet," she said. "But my living here is a sign to them that I'm really committed to this."

Students this semester moved to a new building with a capacity for 40; 24 currently live there. But the community involved in recovery is closer to 100 students, said Keith Murphy, senior substance abuse counselor.

More than 90 percent of students who live in the house stay substance free and graduate, Laitman said. Their average GPA is nearly 3.3.

Johnny saw his GPA rise from 1.6 to 3.4.

His addiction started with marijuana and alcohol, he said, then progressed to oxycontin after he hurt his shoulder, then to heroin because it was cheaper.

"That got really bad. I had overdoses, and I still wanted to use," he said.

He went in and out of rehabs in Florida, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Then, while living with his father in New York City, he heard about Rutgers' program. He has been in recovery for 13 months.

Not all schools see the need for on-campus recovery housing.

"We have many resources available to help students who want and need it, but very few have shown any interest in designated recovery housing," said Ron Ozio, a spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania.

Drexel students in recovery live in an off-campus residence, The Haven at Drexel, which is operated by an outside party and offers support services, said spokeswoman Niki Gianakaris. But Drexel also is exploring adding an on-campus option for students who need less support.

At West Chester, a state school, a task force on recovery has been meeting for three semesters and is assessing the need for programming and housing, said spokeswoman Nancy Santos Gainer.

It can take time to build a recovery community. The College of New Jersey began offering housing in 2016, but only two students have opted for it. The college in the interim has opened the housing to students who wish to live in a substance free environment, which expanded residency to 10.

Penn State, with a main campus of about 46,000, started small three years ago with a recovery suite for four students and has since expanded capacity to 16, said Jason Whitney, program coordinator.

The housing kept Ryan, 22, a senior from Oakton, Va., at Penn State. He had been sober for three years in high school but felt his recovery was at risk when he arrived on campus, so much so that he took a semester off.

He returned his sophomore year when the recovery housing opened. Everything got better, he said.

"I was living with other people who wanted to do the same thing as me," he said, "grow in the same way and all stay in recovery. The people who I live with now are the best friends I've ever had."