Eleven University of Southern Maine graduates had a second, much more intimate commencement ceremony in May, recognizing not only that they had met the graduation requirements, but also the work they had done while committed to a recovery community called the Recovery Oriented Campus Center (ROCC).
“It was such a heart-warming ceremony, so inspiring to see what they have overcome,” said University of Maine President Glenn Cummings. “And they had GPAs of 3.5 to 3.9. It’s really impressive.”
Nationwide, there are more than 130 collegiate recovery centers. Most focus on substance use recovery, but the ROCC uses a more holistic model, including recovery from mental health issues.
“The stats around co-occurring disorders are so high, it just makes sense,” said Anna Gardner, a clinical counselor who coordinates the ROCC. “We look at emotional health recovery as a journey, just as recovery from substance use is a journey. It’s being able to make changes in your life, getting the support you need to be able to manage the symptoms of that disorder to have a more fulfilling life — and, for our students, to succeed academically.” The ROCC has offices and social space on the second floor of the Recreation & Fitness Complex on USM’s Portland campus. Students who commit to pursuing a life in recovery, supporting others in the ROCC community and participating regularly are called peers.
Peers coordinate social activities, facilitate support groups and get training on how to educate the larger community on overdose prevention and response. “We’re trying to grow the sense of community within the space,” Gardner said, “But also expand that out into the larger community to decrease the stigma around substance use disorder and mental health issues.”
Lauren Porter, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in social work, was a senior peer leader at the ROCC. Her first forays into the ROCC were meditation gatherings, not the most social of ROCC events. But once she went on a ROCC hike, not only her first ROCC social event but her first mountain hike ever, she knew she belonged.
“It felt like I’d known those people forever,” said Porter, who then helped plan social events, from on-campus game or craft nights to off-campus Sea Dogs or Portland Museum of Art excursions. “That was a big turning point for me. Part of our mission at the ROCC is to redefine the college experience and what fun means. The ROCC gives students a chance to connect, plus something to look forward to on campus.” Having struggled with a mental health disorder and self injury for more than a decade, Porter stepped up to facilitate a ROCC mental health support group. Then, recognizing the co-occurrence of chronic illness and depression, she started a chronic illness support group on campus.
“The ROCC gives students all the options — peer support, social activities on and off campus, wellness and advocacy,” Porter said. “The ROCC was a huge part of me getting through college and preventing relapse, and it was the best part of my senior year.”
Throughout the University of Maine system, counseling support for students and access to 12-step recovery meetings are common. The University of Maine at Farmington has a Wellness Community at Stone Hall, which, though it is more targeted to outdoor athletes than students in recovery, is a substance-free residence hall. The University of Maine at Orono has set aside two substance-free floors in Aroostook Hall, also not specifically for students in recovery, but as substance-free campus housing.
UM Orono has a collegiate recovery center, Maine Black Bears in Recovery, which welcomes students in recovery from substance use disorders, eating disorders and mental health struggles. In April, Black Bears hosted Voices in Recovery, an event where six people associated with UM Orono spoke about their recovery journeys.
“It seemed like there was a lot of camaraderie,” said James Hiers, a drug and alcohol educator. “But we struggle to find traction. The issue is participation and getting people in the door.”
Hiers has tried switching program locations, days of the week and times of day, trying to find a way to attract and support more Black Bears on the recovery spectrum, because they’re certainly out there. In comparison, the ROCC had 30 to 35 students participating in its peer program this year, a small fraction of the number of USM students on the recovery spectrum.
Both universities actively promote their collegiate recovery centers with the dual intentions of spreading the word that support is available, without turning a blind eye to overuse of alcohol and other substances.
“When I was going to college, it was kind of accepted that over drinking was part of the college experience and we’re no longer seeing that as acceptable behavior,” Cummings said. “When it gets to the level of addiction, we need a comprehensive approach to how we redirect students and provide the services and the fellowship which is a big part of the ROCC to get them moving in the right direction.”
Funding is a challenge, but, Cummings said, “My long-term dream is to have a sober residential hall where students can choose to live there and not use drugs or alcohol, and have counseling support right there in the building.”