Ian Wong, director of the Department of Health Promotion and Prevention, poses for a photo in front of Health Service on Monday, Oct. 24. (Lilia Kang / The Tufts Daily)

Health Promotion and Prevention to offer additional resources for students in substance abuse recovery

Many students entering college experience a degree of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty. For students recovering from substance abuse, however, there is an added concern regarding how to sustain their recovery on a college campus.

In order to provide these students with the support that they need, Tufts’ Department of Health Promotion and Prevention is working to strengthen the collegiate recovery community at Tufts, according to its director Ian Wong.

This effort involves determining the resources necessary for incoming first-years in recovery. In this endeavor, Wong is partnering with Margie Skeer, assistant professor of public health and community medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine, to develop a plan for Tufts to build upon its existing recovery resources. 

“We’re working together to conceptualize what is needed,” Skeer said. “The informative background research that we need to do [will help us] develop a plan … that will work best for Tufts students in recovery.”

According to Skeer, the background research, which will begin before the end of the semester, will include focus groups with students at William J. Ostiguy High, Boston’s only public recovery high school, along with interviews with administrators at the high school. Formulating a plan will also involve interviewing current Tufts students in recovery, Tufts alumni who are or were in recovery and administrators at other universities with collegiate recovery programs.

Wong said his goal is to make students in recovery feel comfortable both in their decision to come to Tufts as well as during their time here.

“We’re trying to say, ‘How can we make Tufts a destination college for some of these students?’” he said. “Of course they have to get in here having the academic backgrounds … but we also want to say [that] when you come here we have all the resources and supports that you need.”

He added that over the summer, the non-profit charity Transforming Youth Recovery gave the Department of Health Promotion and Prevention a $10,000 grant. Thus far, this money has been used to put on events in conjunction with Wilson House, Tufts’ substance-free housing, and to support undergraduate and graduate student interns in the department. Part of it will also go toward an official partnership with Ostiguy High.

As of now, there are several support services on campus for students who need help with alcohol or substance abuse, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, in addition to Al-Anon meetings for family and friends of those struggling with alcohol abuse, Wong said.

Yet, in Wong’s experience, some students prefer to find resources off campus. One Tufts School of the Museum of the Fine Arts (SMFA) student, a first-year who preferred to remain anonymous, has chosen not to take part in many on-campus recovery programs or activities due to her desire to maintain anonymity.

“I don’t want people to … see me as [my alcoholism], so I am really glad that there [are] resources available on campus, but I don’t think I’m necessarily going to use them all the time because I just don’t want that to be how people know me around school,” the student said.

She added that that while college students may say that they do not think differently of peers who struggle with substance abuse, some students still cast those with substance abuse problems in a negative light.

“If you’re going to say, ‘I’m actually a recovering alcoholic,’ or ‘I actually used to drink a lot,’ some people would be respectful about it, but I am positive that there would be people who would be like, ‘Oh wow, that girl’s got issues,’” she said.

While the stigma associated with substance abuse is a common concern for these students, Wong said he has always witnessed a strong support network within the Tufts community. He believes that making this support more widely known will encourage students to get help.

“What we’re trying to do here is have [something] that makes students feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s a matter of … promoting that we are this community that will come forward and not judge you.”

Wong added that it can be difficult to strike a balance between providing students in recovery with the support that they need while also giving them the full college experience.

“We … don’t want to treat [students in recovery] like a very precious piece of glass that may break,” he said. “We don’t want to say, ‘Oh, here’s Spring Fling and [there’s] the sober-for-recovery-students Spring Fling’… We want them to have the experience, but we also want to make sure that we give them their support.”

One way in which Wong hopes to provide support for students in recovery is during their first introduction to Tufts. Wong has worked with student leaders such as pre-orientation leaders and resident assistants (RAs) to educate them about the language to use when talking to incoming students about drinking — or not drinking.

“A lot of times, like just about anything, we can put out a lot of materials about things, but I think [what really helps] is students talking to students about supportive systems,” Wong said.

Skeer explained that a good first step is for students to educate themselves on addiction in order to better serve as allies for their peers.

“A lack of understanding … about addiction can make it hard for people who aren’t suffering from their own addiction to really understand what it’s like for somebody who’s in recovery to try and stay away from something,” she said. “For a healthy brain … they don’t get those same triggers … that someone who’s had addiction gets.”

Roger Oser, the principal of Ostiguy High, described the challenges that his students, all of whom are in recovery, face when looking ahead toward college.

“The bottom line is that many of them have very complicated transcripts, interrupted transcripts, periods where they have very poor grades related to when they were using [alcohol or drugs],” Oser said. “So a lot of work has to go … into getting them engaged in the college application process and then helping them mitigate some of the more challenging aspects of their transcripts and their school history … so that they can get into competitive schools.”

On Tufts’ end, Wong plans to work with Admissions to ensure that these students have a fair chance at being accepted into the university.

“Your GPA may reflect your drinking, not really your academic potential and everything else,” Wong said.

While about 75 percent of Ostiguy High’s seniors are hoping to go to college immediately after graduating from Ostiguy, many are worried about what attending college might mean for their recovery, Oser explained.

“Addiction is a fear-based disease, so any time there’s change or transition, that creates a lot of [worry],” he said. “Going to college is a big [change], [and] for people in recovery it can be a big trigger, so a lot of students who are looking to go into higher education are really looking at how are they going to continue to support their recovery as well as be a college student.”

Jimmy, a first-year student at Lesley University in Cambridge who preferred that his last name not be included, graduated from Ostiguy High last spring. A halfway house program, in which he participated for heroin addiction, required that he attend the school.

During his time at Ostiguy, his grades improved and he became motivated to attend college to study psychology. For Jimmy, who commutes to school, Lesley seemed like a safe place to continue his education.

“The school environment was very welcoming, so I felt like I could open up about being in recovery,” he said.

The biggest worry that the SMFA student had in entering her first year of college was how the college party scene might affect her after a year of sobriety.

“I feel like no matter what school it is, there’s always a really big emphasis on drinking … in everyday culture,” she said. “People say there’s a lot of drinking in college and when you go away you’re just going to be partying and stuff, so it was definitely a big concern for me.”

Despite initial concerns about entering college in recovery, both Jimmy and the SMFA student said they are doing well in their first couple of months of school.

“My high school career had been so unstable … I didn’t know if I could do college,” Jimmy said. “But I’ve come to find after my first month or two I’m actually doing pretty well. So it’s kind of nice to know that I actually can do it.”

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