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A New Generation, Recovery-Friendly College Campuses

Issue 33

College is a time of personal growth and newfound independence. For many students, this period of experimentation includes exploring one’s relationship with substance use.

“The tight-knit relationship between college and alcohol and drug use dates back to the earliest years of the nation’s history,” says Kimberly Boulden, PhD, Senior Director of SAFE Campuses, a SAFE Project recovery initiative for college campuses.

“For example, Harvard built and operated its own brewery. The brewery failed to keep up with student demand, and after growing student complaints, Harvard’s president was fired in 1969. Colleges continue to be associated with alcohol use, and now are increasingly associated with marijuana use as well.”

She continues, “In the early 1970s, during the height of student anti-war and civil rights protests, an estimated one in nine people smoked marijuana daily.”

Still, while substance use has been part of the college experience since colleges first existed in the U.S., what has come into clearer focus in recent years is the proliferation of substance use problems among today’s college students.

As Kimberly confirms, “At least 12% of college students will meet the criteria for a significant substance use disorder during their college years, and approximately one in three incoming college students report struggling with mental illness.”

And these days, it isn’t just alcohol and marijuana being used on college campuses. According to the American Addiction Centers, college students are increasingly using opioids, stimulants, and sedatives as top substances of choice.

This is worrisome on many levels. “The emergence of substances such as fentanyl [a synthetic opioid] has added a layer of complexity and danger to the landscape of college substance use. Its unpredictable presence in the illicit drug supply has had fatal consequences, erasing the once relatively safe ‘on-ramp’ for experimentation,” says Kimberly.

To address the challenges presented by increased substance use, campuses have a critical need to offer health promotion, harm reduction, and collegiate recovery programs.

“Collegiate recovery is a 40-year-old, yet still-emerging, practice that seeks to serve students in recovery from an addiction and the many unique needs these students experience while navigating colleges and universities,” Kimberly relates.

Unfortunately, collegiate recovery is still not yet widely implemented. While nearly half a million college students identify as in recovery, fewer than 5% of universities offer collegiate recovery programs.

As for the reason why recovery programs in college are slow to catch on, a common response to collegiate recovery advocates who promote recovery programming to campus leaders is abrupt, “We don’t have students in recovery here.”

As Kimberly explains, “The invisibility of students in recovery is often deeply rooted in stigma. Students in recovery report navigating not just the stigma of addiction, but for students who follow an abstinence-based pathway, many report campuses being ‘abstinence hostile,’ particularly with rite of passage norms.”

Compounding this, the absence of collegiate recovery programs could be interpreted by students in recovery as rejection and exclusion. The failure to discuss these issues also deters other students needing help from seeking support.

However, Kimberly points to research showing when collegiate recovery programs are established on campuses, students in recovery thrive and serve the campus in many ways, once their existence and sense of belonging are affirmed.

Here’s where SAFE Campuses comes in.

SAFE Campuses, a cornerstone initiative of SAFE Project, was founded in November of 2017 by Admiral James and Mary Winnefeld, following the loss of their 19-year-old son Jonathan to an accidental overdose on his college campus.

“The Winnefelds immediately channeled their grief into action, hoping to save more families from the pain of loss,” Kimberly says. SAFE Project’s initiatives focus on a few key areas, including:

  • Meeting the unique needs of college populations (SAFE Campuses)
  • Workers and employers (SAFE Workplaces)
  • Military-connected individuals and their families (SAFE Veterans)
  • Local providers, front-line workers, and community members at large (SAFE Communities)

For colleges, SAFE Campuses combats stigma around recovery issues and connects colleges with recovery resources to support their recovery community.

“We understand that every college campus is unique in size, population, and culture, and so what works at one institution may not be as effective at another… [what we do] is share best practices and then work to co-author individualized solutions with each campus,” says Kimberly.

No campus recovery need is too big or too small. SAFE Campuses has worked with multi-campus systems to roll out naloxone training and distribution programs, and also worked with individual recovery coordinators to supplement and diversify current programming on their campus.

The SAFE Campuses initiative makes a difference by working alongside students and staff to foster change and growth in campus-wide recovery programs.

“SAFE Campuses has supported Colorado State University to design, roll out, and evaluate “harm-reduction vending machines,” where students could anonymously obtain supplies such as Narcan, condoms, and fentanyl testing strips. At the University of Nevada, Reno, we worked with a passionate student to implement an art installation raising awareness around recovery stories and journeys,” Kimberly describes.

SAFE Campuses has evolved over the years but stays true to the belief that collegiate recovery is critical for meeting the needs of today’s students.

“Since our founding, the team has worked with over 500 college campuses nationwide. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States, so while we’ve continued to grow our impact year after year, there’s still a long way to go,” Kimberly confirms.

Locally, SAFE Campuses works with the University of Southern Maine and Washington County Community College in Calias.

More college communities are welcome to see how SAFE Campuses can help students, faculty, staff, and the wider campus community stay healthy.

One tip from Kimberly—“We strongly recommend you start conversations with your campus by identifying the key stakeholders you need to engage.”

She continues, “We find that when we work with one or two advocates, we can go fast, but when we build multi-pronged coalitions, we go far.”

If you are interested in connecting with SAFE Campuses or learning more about advocacy training for students, as well as professional development for staff, check out the website at or reach out to

Jacqueline Brown
Jacqueline Brown
Jacqueline Brown is a freelance writer from Southern Maine who regularly contributes to national and regional publications. A former public school teacher in the Boston area, Jacqueline is the published author of several books for children, one of which won the Maine Literary Award for Children's Literature in 2018. When she's not at her computer, Jacqueline can be found looking for sea glass at her favorite beach.

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