Some of the greatest losses for many individuals who have struggled with addiction is the loss of a supportive networks of families, friends, and communities. Since the 1930’s, recovery groups, such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), have served to provide peer support and a formative understanding of the particular dangers individuals in addiction and recovery face daily. As these support groups have grown exponentially into recovery communities, they have come to exist as pillars of encouragement, hope, resilience, and personal reflective learning for those journeying through transforming the trajectory of their lives. Given the success of these recovery communities, colleges have begun to recognize that postsecondary education can serve as a positive transformational experience for those who are in early recovery from behavioral health challenges. Therefore, through the establishment of Collegiate Recovery services along with academic and student life engagement, students can access pillars of transformational support similar to those that have traditionally existed solely within recovery communities.
Through the process of reflection individuals can engage in a critique of the assumptions and beliefs that were often acquired in childhood and remain functional into adulthood. For many individuals who are struggling with addiction and behavioral health issues, these beliefs and assumptions come to serve as underlying foundations driving the “dysfunctional” trajectories of their adult life. Thus, through the process of intentional reflection, individuals in early recovery can gain both an evolutionary understanding of themselves and a metacognitive understanding of how they have acquired this understanding and the world around them. Mezirow (1996) proposes that such transformational learning involves: “refining or elaborating our meaning schemes, learning new meaning schemes, transforming meaning schemes, and transforming meaning perspectives. In academia, we speak of this type of reflection in terms of critical thinking whereby such learning is an inherent part of the educational experience. Thus, for students in early recovery, purposeful and meaningful reflection and active participation in the campus community can serve as the means to a transformative and positive life trajectory. Such transformational change can only be accomplished within a supportive and recovery/mentoring educational context that facilitates an individual’s ability to change their frame of reference through critical reflection of their assumptions and beliefs that evoke solution-focused behaviors and ways of defining and altering their life process. The concepts of transformational learning involve changes in one’s psychological understanding of Self, one’s belief system and life style. These changes are critical components to the healing process in recovery education. In the context of the larger community that one must create and make a part of their new reality, transformative education believes that “learning is understood as a process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience to guide future action”. This new value system brings a different perspective to an otherwise narrow unimaginative life amid behavioral health challenges. This transformation in self -awareness and perspective is well stated by a student in recovery:
As drugs and alcohol took control of my life, I managed to have more time on my hands and that time and energy was usually spent finding a way to get high. Eventually, getting high had become the focus of my day. If there were family gatherings or special occasions, I did not participate, which gave me more time to get high. After twenty years, getting high grew old and I needed something positive to spend my energy on. Out of all the problems I had growing up, in which many of them I created because of my hatred towards the world and myself, I needed to replace my addiction with something positive, this is when I decided to continue my education. Although I spoke to many people about me continuing my education, there were few if any people that I could find to encourage me. The fellowship of AA helped me find education and I have been in school every semester of my recovery. I must admit that continuing my education has given me some sort of closure to my past mistakes. I find that the learning process is far more rewarding than trying to smoke a joint or drink a beer for recreation. Although getting high did not stop as soon as I enrolled in school, it gradually stopped as I selected more classes per semester and I challenged myself even more. In meeting new people, I have surrounded myself with a more positive force that does not allow the negative side of my life to interfere. What I mean by this, is when an old friend calls up and wants to get high the way we use to, I am normally too busy doing my class work, or perhaps spending time with my family. Today I know by getting an education I will help, not only myself, but also my family in the long run. I hope my example will help them not make the same mistakes in life that I did.
A common aspect of recovery, both at the college and the general community, is said to be the presence of others who believe in the person’s potential to recover, and who stand by them. Although mental health professionals can offer a specific kind of therapeutic helping relationship, they are generally limited one-way relationships.These“therapeutic” type relationships do not offer the person in recovery with mutual support networks that are reciprocal in nature and foster ongoing long-term recovery. Repper & Perkins (2006), acknowledge that relationships with friends, family and the community are said to provide significant long-term benefits in the maintenance of a person’s recovery. Along these lines, Collegiate Recovery Services need to coordinate and offer students in recovery with the opportunity to participate in a campus community in which isolation is shed for inclusivity and where strangers become friends and allies. The College can be viewed as a supportive environment place where self-determination and recovery transformation are nurtured and acknowledged and through this transformative process, education can become integrated into values and principles of recovery and resilience. Non-clinical recovery supports, and all student life services are indispensable in promoting sustained recovery and the development of resilience and protective factors in the college student. This college-based support system allows the student in recovery to feel less isolated and lonely if he/she realizes that his/her individual recovery illustrates a universal problem. Establishing relationships with others who have experienced similar difficulties and who share compatible values and outlooks more generally, have proven to be a significant factor in one’s journey of recovery and transformation. Therefore, the transformational recovery challenge for any college is to engage not only the student but also the faculty to create emotional supportive classrooms and faculty skilled in getting students to test and transcend their limits and convince teachers to be more effective change agents.
If you are interested in a college with collegiate recovery services, google “collegiate recovery programs” on the web. Many colleges are now getting the message that this is an important aspect of admissions.
Pascal Scoles is Professor, Behavioral Health/Human Services and Director, Office of Collegiate Recovery, Community College of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA., USA.