Cougar Health Services at Washington State University has been awarded a $500,000 grant to help colleges and universities across the state bolster support for students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

The grant is provided by the Washington State Health Care Authority and charges WSU with identifying best practices, developing campus and community resources, providing training, and creating virtual learning communities, that will help higher education institutions create their own recovery programs. The grant provides $260,000 for these efforts, which includes a statewide evaluation of collegiate recovery support services and the development of a webpage to help disseminate grant deliverables.

Leading the way

The remainder of the award, about $240,000, is going directly to select institutions, including WSU Pullman, in the form of seed grants. The seed grants, valued at $60,000 each, will help colleges and universities create and launch their own recovery support services.

As part of its leadership role outlined in the grant, CHS invited institutions across the state to apply for the seed grants. Gonzaga University, Whitman College, and Green River Community College were selected based upon their institutional readiness for establishing a recovery program, goals and objectives, plans for using the funding, staff engagement, and diversity planning.

“An exciting thing about this contract is Washington is one of the first states in the country to provide funding to help build this network among collegiate recovery communities,” said Patricia Maarhuis, senior health promotion specialist in Cougar Health Services. “Our job is to develop relationships with these institutions, build a pipeline of recovery support between high school and college students, and raise the bar for delivering support.”

Closeup of Patricia Maarhuis
Patricia Maarhuis

While the number of students living with addiction may be relatively small compared with the overall student body, Maarhuis said this effort is not about the numbers, but rather making sure universities are being equitable and inclusive in supporting students – something CHS and the Division of Student Affairs are always working towards. Students often feel they need to choose between their recovery or pursuing higher education, Maarhuis said, and “we want to put support services in place, whether it be academic, environmental, or social, so students don’t have to make that choice.

“They can recover at the same time they are pursuing their education.”

Identifying needs and barriers

Built into the grant is funding to support assessment efforts. To that end, CHS has contracted with consultants C4 Innovations to help identify needs in each seed grant community and conduct asset mapping – taking inventory of the available resources in these regions.

Michael Cleveland, WSU associate professor in human development, is excited to contribute to this effort by conducting a study that seeks to identify specific academic needs of students in recovery, as well as the barriers that hinder their academic success. The information will be gathered through individual interviews with students attending Washington’s two recovery high schools, college students, and parents from across the state.

Cleveland said research in this area is in its infancy and scientists are just beginning to understand on a national scale how effective recovery programs are and what types of support students need.

“The passion and excitement I feel for this research is driven by this great opportunity for WSU and our state to be a national leader in understanding how to fully provide support for students in recovery,” Cleveland said.

Changing the culture

Craig Parks, vice provost for system innovation and policy, said historically students in recovery have been an invisible population on college campuses. The institution assumes all the students’ needs are being met off campus through the help of friends, family, and support groups.

Parks believes part of what needs to change is the culture of the institution – what students in recovery often describe as a hostile environment toward them. Not only is substance use widely accepted among students on college campuses, faculty and staff with the best intentions often interact with students in recovery in ways that are not helpful. For example, a professor might ask a student in recovery how long they have battled addiction, conjuring up memories the student has tried hard to manage or forget.

“We need to figure out ways to encourage these students to feel comfortable in coming forward and understand that their status will be kept in confidence,” said Parks. “This project will help us get to a point where they can feel confident faculty and staff are not only empathetic, but also understand the boundaries for the types of questions they can ask.”

‘We matter’

Jon Wallis, a WSU graduate and co-founder of the registered student organization Cougs For Recovery said additional support would have helped him when he arrived at WSU in 2010. A self-described heavy drinker and drug user in high school, his addiction grew worse in college, which forced him to drop out of school after the first year.

Following a short break, Wallis returned to campus hoping he had shaken the demons of addiction enough to continue his education. It quickly became evident, however, that alcoholism still had a firm grip on him. After getting arrested three times, twice for being a minor in possession and once for driving under the influence, Wallis was suspended from WSU.

“I remember feeling very isolated and alone in dealing with my addiction,” Wallis said. “I went home and floundered for three years before finally entering a recovery program.”

Wallis returned to WSU in 2016. He was a different man, a sober man, and he sought redemption. He graduated from WSU in 2018 with a psychology degree and is now nearing the end of his master’s degree program at Seattle University.

“What this project conveys to students in recovery is the university cares about us – we matter,” said Wallis. “They are willing to devote time and resources to help us enjoy our best life.”

New opportunity

As part of WSU’s seed grant, a new scholarship has been created to recognize the academic achievements of students in recovery. There are 10 Cougs For Recovery (C4R) scholarships, each valued at $1,000. Students have until Feb. 15 to apply.