May 17, 2017
Anthony remembers the moment his mother confronted him about his addiction. He was sitting at the top of the stairway at their home in North Caldwell, New Jersey.
His reputation was tarnished by years of substance abuse and the drug-related arrests that followed. He counted no true friends. And his relationship with his parents had withered away.
"I had lost almost everything that I valued," said Anthony, who requested his last name be withheld. "That's the defining moment of change, in my perception."
Anthony's path to sobriety has been neither quick nor smooth. But on Tuesday night he celebrated a height he never dreamed he'd reach — he earned a master's degree.
Anthony was among 10 Rutgers University graduates who earned degrees this year while living in university housing for students who have battled alcohol and drug dependency in their lives. They celebrated their achievements alongside dozens of family, friends and supporters who gathered at the Livingston Student Center for a special ceremony.
"It's saved a lot of people's lives. I certainly don't know where I'd be without it. I've made some of my best friends here. I'm going to miss it." – Anthony, who participated in the ADAP program at Rutgers
The graduates beamed as they were introduced by a hand-selected individual who played a critical role on their road to recovery. They shared snippets of the myriad trials they – and their families and friends – had faced. And they spoke with hope and optimism, ready to advance to their next journey.
Their messages varied, but the graduates each expressed gratitude toward the Rutgers program that had provided them a supportive community filled with people who understood their challenges, held them accountable and guided them forward.
"Without this program, I don't know how Anthony would have had a college career," his mother said. "This has been such a crucial, safe place for him to remain in recovery and at the same time explore life and come up with a winning plan. We're very grateful."
Rutgers created its Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program in 1983 at the urging of president Edward Bloustein. Five years later, ADAP launched one of the first college recovery programs.
"That was an initiative that was pretty much started from conversations with students," said ADAP director Lisa Laitman, who has been with the program since its inception. "There was no other model like it."
The recovery housing program still stands as a model for colleges and universities which have sought to add similar programs. Last year, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill requiring all New Jersey public colleges and universities to offer recovery housing programs by 2018.
"A lot of us struggled with it. We felt isolated and alone. We didn't know how we were supposed to navigate college." – Alison, an ADAP participant, on getting accustomed to college life
Rutgers' program offers students year-round, on-campus housing in a facility shared by other students in recovery. They have access to a recovery counselor and other necessary health, medical and counseling services.
Moreover, a resident assistant who has been in recovery for at least one year lives in the building.
Perhaps most importantly, students praise the recovery program for offering them a community that helps enable them to experience campus life but avoid the drinking and partying lifestyle that permeates college campuses across the nation.
Alison, a Rutgers alumni who graduated two years ago, remembers coming to Rutgers after attending community college. She feared feeling alone, but found that many of her peers in the recovery program initially felt the same way.
"A lot of us struggled with it," said Alison, who has been sober for six years and asked that her last name be withheld. "We felt isolated and alone. We didn't know how we were supposed to navigate college. Just the level of community that they built was huge."
The recovery program offers students many social opportunities, including trips to Six Flags, New York City and sporting events. There are hikes, 5K runs and Super Bowl parties. One alumnus recalled a wing eating contest that got so loud police paid a visit.
"There was a time when people going to meetings would be discouraged from going back to college ... Everybody knew that a college environment was a pretty lethal place for a person who was in recovery." – Lisa Laitman, ADAP director
But the students don't just have fun together. They hold one another accountable and, if necessary, offer a shoulder to cry on.
"You develop your own family here to pick you up when you're struggling," said Anthony, who has been sober for more than five years. "You find positive people to surround yourself by and together we get better."
Rutgers offers recovery housing at its New Brunswick and Newark campuses. It plans to open a newly-renovated,a 39-bed facility this fall on its New Brunswick campus.
To be eligible for recovery housing, students need to have been sober for at least 90 days. (ADAP has other resources available for students still battling addiction). They also are required to go to regular 12-step meetings on campus.
"There was a time when people going to meetings would be discouraged from going back to college," Laitman said. "If they were going to college, they would be commuting from home. Everybody knew that a college environment was a pretty lethal place for a person who was in recovery."
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But Rutgers has shown that with appropriate support, students in recovery can live on campus and excel. The 10 students who graduated this year carried averaged a 3.39 cumulative GPA.
"We have a lot of alumni at this point because we've been around so long," Laitman said. "We actually have alumni who are now in their 50s who have over 30 years of sobriety. It's a pretty remarkable accomplishment to spend your whole adult life in recovery."
The latest graduates remain near the beginning of that journey.
Their roads to recovery – and graduation – have been long. Their paths, at times, have been bumpy.
But as they stared out into the crowd on Tuesday, they saw dozens of family, friends and supporters ready to walk alongside them. Indeed, many of them already have.
For his introduction, Anthony selected his father, who said they celebrate joyfully, but humbly. After all, there are countless others who lost their own battles with addiction, including Anthony's own cousin.
Anthony said he does not know why his life was spared. There was a time, albeit a hopeless one, when he figured his addiction would leave him dead by age 30.
But he knows Rutgers' recovery program has been a lifeline for him and many others.
"It's saved a lot of people's lives," Anthony said. "I certainly don't know where I'd be without it. I've made some of my best friends here. I'm going to miss it."
Having earned his masters in social work, Anthony said he intends to work at least one year in the sober living industry. But he has aspirations for opening a facility similar to the Rutgers program that guided him.
"My world is completely different," Anthony said. "Black looks like white now. They're completely different."