Education

UK group supports students in recovery. Next up, a sober dorm

Kelsey Hinken Otten, Alex Elswick and Tyler Allen stand outside the University of Kentucky’s Blazer Dining Hall, where the College Recovery Community will be located. UK staff member Hinken Otten runs the group, which supports students, faculty and staff in recovery on campus.
Kelsey Hinken Otten, Alex Elswick and Tyler Allen stand outside the University of Kentucky’s Blazer Dining Hall, where the College Recovery Community will be located. UK staff member Hinken Otten runs the group, which supports students, faculty and staff in recovery on campus. lblackford@herald-leader.com

Like many students, Tyler Allen spent his college days enthusiastically experimenting with alcohol. Only for Allen, it turned into a habit that was more than recreational.

“I spent a lot of time drinking,” he said. “But I felt like I was the only one struggling.”

When he got to graduate school at the University of Kentucky, he was ready for full-time recovery, a process that’s been helped by UK’s Collegiate Recovery Community, where the many students who actually struggle can find support.

The CRC has been in the works for several years, but really got up and running this year, said Kelsey Hinken Otten, a UK staff prevention coordinator who guides it. Right now, the core group is about 10 undergraduate and graduate students, but it’s open to faculty and staff, and is supported by members of the recovery community in Lexington.

But those numbers could balloon next year when UK opens a learning-living community in Ingels Hall for those students in recovery and those who simply support the concept. There will be about 26 spots.

Although UK’s dorms don’t allow alcohol and drugs, students in the new dorm would agree to a sober living space and not come back to the dorm either drunk or with drugs and alcohol, said Drew Smith, UK’s interim assistant provost for student health and wellness. In other words, it’s hard to stay sober, if everyone around you parties all the time.

“We’re trying to carve out a safety bubble for students in recovery to experience college without seeing all the triggers for potential relapse,” Smith said.

The program will be the first sober dorm in Kentucky, although they can be found at schools all over the nation. For example, Texas Tech University opened its substance-free housing in 2011, and last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a law that requires all public universities to offer sober housing choices if at least a quarter of the student body lives on campus. According to a 2015 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey, about 32 percent of college students reported binge drinking in the past two weeks. Use of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs is also up.

Alex Elswick attended Centre College in Danville, and went through treatment and relapse several times, partly because the atmosphere at most college campuses simply doesn’t support staying sober.

“I think I would have benefited greatly from something like this,” he said. “There’s just something about being in a space where people uniquely know what you’re feeling.”

UK's Collegiate Recovery Community is helping students with their sobriety. Next year, they will open a sober dorm.

Hinken Otten runs the CRC in addition to her other duties, such as AlcoholEdu, a prevention and training program given to all freshmen. The UK CRC now has permanent office and meeting space in Blazer Dining. The group holds a regular meeting every Thursday, but members meet up informally throughout the week.

“Having this space will allow more frequent meetings,” Hinken Otten said. “We have a really good group dynamic and camaraderie.”

Earlier this fall, the group held the first sober tailgate at UK, along with supportive Lexington residents, and were featured at halftime. Finding those kinds of activities are important, says Elswick, because some people might believe that recovery in college means “my life is over, or ‘I can’t have fun in college.’”

Hinken Otten said that in a recent AlcoholEdu survey, as many as 150 students indicated possible interest in the CRC.

“I think there’s a lot of interest,” she said. “I think this can provide them with a safe environment to help them advance their goals. People in Residential Life are excited too.”

Meanwhile, they want to get the word out that they are a resource on campus.

“If someone comes to us, we want to be available,” Allen said. “When I was in college, I had no idea where to start.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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