Substance-free campus housing provides haven for abstaining college students

Spinnaker

Students flooded into the college house in Allentown, Pa., on a Friday night, headed straight for the bar, and ordered drinks. The blenders whirred.

“Bottoms up,” the student bartender said as drinkers tipped their cups.

Soon Muhlenberg College’s campus police officers were at the party, also drinking.

After all, the plastic red cups were filled only with milkshakes. Vanilla. Chocolate. And strawberry.

No alcohol.

The house, on a quiet street near Muhlenberg’s campus, is overseen by CASE, a nearly two-year-old student-initiated organization that includes students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and others who abstain.

Perhaps there’s no place more difficult to live alcohol- and drug-free than America’s college campuses –– the first step away from home for many students, a time to experiment, a time to let loose.

Half of full-time college students, many of whom are younger than the legal drinking age of 21, binge-drink or abuse prescription or illegal drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Almost one in four meets medical criteria for substance abuse and dependence, the group says.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, few colleges have housing for students in recovery. Locally, besides Muhlenberg, the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University provide it.

Some schools, including Penn and West Chester University, offer “healthy living” spaces for students looking for a drug- and alcohol-free oasis.

“There’s no question that colleges have started to do more than they ever did, but they are by no means doing enough,” said Joseph Califano Jr., chairman and president of the National Addiction Center at Columbia. “Higher education has to get the ‘high’ out of it.”

At Muhlenberg, the clean-and-sober organization holds alcohol- and drug-free parties and other activities at the house. The events give students another social option and sometimes draw hundreds.

“When people come to college, it’s hard to feel comfortable at a party situation where everyone is drinking and still feel like you’re part of the party,” said club president Amy Bauer, 20, a junior English and theater major from Rockaway, N.J.

“So things like this let people know it is possible to meet people, dance, and have a good time [without drugs or alcohol]”, she said. “You can be the life of the party without a beer in your hand.”

Despite what experts call a widespread drinking on campuses, the demand for the special housing is small. At Muhlenberg, six students live in the college-owned house.

Two years ago Penn designated a small wing of a dorm for as many as six students in recovery. It isn’t full.

The Rutgers house for students in recovery has room for 20; 12 live there. Officials say numbers were kept smaller because of lack of staff. The house will return to capacity in the fall.

Knowing the need, proponents want housing to grow both for students in recovery and those who want a substance-free environment.

“I’m confident that it will and that other schools will catch on,” said Julie Lyzinski, Penn’s director for alcohol and other drug programs.

The Muhlenberg house, amid a mix of upscale and middle-class houses, looked like any other college house hosting a party. There was loud music in the basement and dancing under strobe lights. Upstairs, students chatted.

“When I was a freshman and I didn’t want to drink, it was really difficult,” Bauer said. “It took me a long time to feel confident enough to go to a party.”

Then she met Aaron Lawson, now 21 and a senior theater and sociology major from Maine, and Philip Lakin, also 21, a senior theater and communications major from Wayne, N.J. They had just attended a program at the Addiction Studies Institute in Ohio and wanted to start a group for students in recovery and to connect it with others on campus.

Bauer decided to join in.

“I knew there were other people out there like me, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

The organization, which gets funding through the student council, won a campus award in its first year for best student organization. About 20 people come to the group meetings, and 50 more are on the club’s mailing list.

The house has rules: no alcohol or drugs, not even medications such as Robitussin. No entering intoxicated.

The students in recovery asked that their names not be published. One student said he had difficulty when he returned to campus several years ago after going through a recovery program.

“My friends would drink on weekends. You hang out at the barbershop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut,” he said as he drank his vanilla milkshake.

The organization made life on campus easier, he said.

The need for alternatives is seen at Muhlenberg’s counseling center. Ten percent to 18 percent of students who seek help report alcohol or drug issues, said Anita Kelly, Muhlenberg’s director of counseling.

Once in counseling, more students reveal they have a substance-abuse problem, raising the percentage to about 25, she said.

At some campuses, including Penn and Rutgers, the location of the recovery housing –– which is only for students in recovery –– is kept secret to protect privacy.

Rutgers has been at it the longest –– more than 20 years.

Lisa Laitman, director of the alcohol and other drugs assistance program, was hired in 1983 to start a recovery support group. “As the group got larger and larger, housing issues arose.”

In 1988, the school agreed to open a recovery house on its main campus in New Brunswick.

Among the residents is Ryan, 19, of North Jersey, who has been there for a year and a half and is the student director. He has been in recovery since his junior year in high school and chose Rutgers because of the house.

“I couldn’t see myself handling having alcohol around,” he said. “This house affords me the opportunity to be on the right track.”

Some schools have designated substance-free dorms or floors for students who abstain.

“I really wanted to live in a college environment that was conducive to not just studying and sleeping but also having fun,” said Mark Pan, 19, a sophomore urban-studies major from San Jose, Calif., who has lived on a substance-free floor at Penn since last year.

“I enjoy going out to parties and going out in the city,” he said. “I do so in a sober manner.”

At West Chester, which designated several wings three years ago, students must sign contracts pledging not to use. About 40 students live there among the 4,000 on campus.

Marion McKinney, director of residence life, said she was not sure whether any students living in the hall were in recovery.

“If they let us know,” she said, “we’re more than willing to help them, but they don’t have to let us know that.”

(c) 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.