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Innovative Program At Fairfield University Helps Students Kick Addiction

Susan Birge, the Assistant Vice President and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Fairfield, said the university's Collegiate Recovery Program helps students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Susan Birge, the Assistant Vice President and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Fairfield, said the university's Collegiate Recovery Program helps students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fairfield University

FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- For many students, the college years are as much about self-discovery as they are about learning skills for professional employment. Sometimes, however, they also learn they are susceptible to dangerous, life-threatening addictions.

Fairfield University’s Collegiate Recovery Program provides services and recovery housing for students recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Fairfield opened its first recovery house in 2013, and a second one opened last fall. Seven young men live in the houses.

The recovery houses provide students with an independent living environment and fully-integrated support services, including recovery coaching, a weekly recovery group using the 12-step model, individual counseling, recreational programming, group dinners, academic success support, Ignatian spirituality and the opportunity to be of service to others.

Susan Birge, Assistant Vice President and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Fairfield, said the university responded to a need about 10 years ago to students who were seeking support as they fought through early stages of addiction.

“We formed a recovery group and in working with them, they wanted more,’’ Birge said. “We had had a dedicated lounge. But they felt they could not live in the residence halls. It was a recipe for relapse.”

Fairfield identified university-owned off-campus housing to start its Recovery Housing Program. Only a handful of colleges in the United States have such a program, and Fairfield was one of the pioneers in the state in developing it.

“We are responding to a need, but it has now become a huge public health crisis,’’ Birge said. “These students were recreationally using drugs but became dependent and addicted. They didn’t mean to become an addict. These are highly addictive substances. We wanted to tell them we want you here, we want you back in school and we’ll create an environment for your commitment to recovery.”

Students need to be admitted to Fairfield University and apply to participate in the program. The school has welcomed transfer students who struggled with their addiction at other universities. The students must also routinely attend 12-step programs and maintain sobriety.

“The students gain a whole new perspective on life without substances,’’ Birge said. “They learn how to find meaning, purpose and balance. That fosters their self-confidence and worth without alcohol and drugs. They care for one another, support one another and leave with a good GPA and a Fairfield University degree. They develop the confidence to go forth without using substances, and a group of supportive, sober friends.”

An important component to the program is the off-campus housing. Students felt they need to be removed from traditional housing because of the tempting triggers in that environment.

“In colleges and universities, there’s a culture of young people experimenting with drugs and alcohol,’’ Birge said. “Socialization can take the form of parties. It would not be good for people in the very early stages of recovery to be in the middle of all that. They’ve created their own group, their own ways to have fun and how to socialize in a sober way.”

Birge works closely with the program’s clinical coordinator, Lisa Arnold. There is also a house manager who lives in the houses, a Fairfield University grad, for 24/7 support. Birge said more schools are adopting recovery programs, and even some high schools have created programs to isolate and support students.

“It’s about doing the right thing,’’ Birge said. “It’s mission driven. It breathes life into what Fairfield University is all about. We’re changing lives, and saving lives.”

For more information about Fairfield University's Recovery House, click here .

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