It was one of the first nights of 2014’s fall semester, and a group of University of South Carolina freshmen were bounding out of their Barnwell Street dorm and into the back of a pickup truck, headed downtown.
It wasn’t until the truck rolled into Columbia’s Five Points bar district that the passenger in the back with a drug-and-alcohol addiction realized what “downtown” meant.
As his new dorm-mates hopped out and into a bar line, the 18-year-old freshman from North Carolina turned around and walked back to his dorm, leaving the party behind. “That’s just the culture here,” says Chris, now 20, who requested partial anonymity for this story, fearing the stigma of addiction. “To navigate that ... was challenging.”
Chris is among a dozen USC students in recovery from drug-and-alcohol addiction pushing the state’s flagship university to join at least 88 other colleges in creating a “collegiate recovery program,” offering an on-campus hang-out space, a recovery-support group and school-sponsored sober events.
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USC has considered the idea for years. But the school, which has an annual budget of more than $1 billion, says it is hamstrung by a lack of money.
Nationally, about one in five college students have a substance-use disorder. One in four say drinking has hampered their studies, while some researchers estimate more than 40 percent of dropout cases involve substance abuse.
▪ About 1 in 5 college students have a substance-use disorder. ▪ 1 in 4 say drinking has hampered their studies. ▪ More than 40 percent of dropout cases involve substance abuse, researchers estimate
USC, which bans underage drinking on campus, says it does not know how many of its students have tackled addiction and actively are in recovery. But surveys of incoming freshmen classes indicate about 3 percent – which would be about 170 students this fall – want more information about the school’s recovery resources.
Recovering students walk a different, sometimes lonely path at USC.
In extensive interviews with seven who attend or recently left the school, they say recovery can be tricky in a college town where lifelong friendships often are built over cold beers at downtown bars, at booze-soaked tailgates or at house parties dotting the neighborhoods that surround USC’s Columbia campus.
They fret about how to decline classmates’ invitations to parties or to go out for casual drinks. They struggle to find common ground with fellow students who haven’t plummeted so far and whose interests can seem shallow, compared to the introspective discussions of 12-step recovery groups. They wrestle, too, with whom to tell about their addiction, when to bring it up, and how to explain it without being looked at like Frankenstein’s monster.
“You miss out on the traditional college experience,” says Chris, who has disclosed his addiction only to other recovering USC students. “You feel like you have to hide a core component of who you are at all times.”
‘The wheels came off’
Tyler Crochet’s first attempt at college could not have gone much worse.
The now-26-year-old USC master’s student had his first drink of alcohol at 12 years old and started taking pain pills at 15. By the time he graduated high school, Crochet was getting high just to avoid the vomiting and cold sweats that marked withdrawals.
College only made matters worse. Crochet started at Louisiana State University, joined a fraternity and quickly stopped going to class.
When he needed money for drugs, he would use his mother’s credit card to order more textbooks than he needed. Then, hours later, he would sell them back to a used bookstore for a fraction of the price. Other times, he used the same card to order pizza, then cranked up the tip to $30 if the delivery guy agreed to give him $20 back.
“Living on my own — with no one waking me up to tell me I had to go to school, no one keeping tabs on me — that’s when the wheels came off,” says Crochet, who earned a bachelor’s degree at USC in 2015 after dropping out of LSU and doing four stints in rehab.
Living on my own — with no one waking me up to tell me I had to go to school, no one keeping tabs on me — that’s when the wheels came off.”
— Tyler Crochet, a USC master’s degree student
It’s hard to estimate how many of his USC classmates suffer the same challenges.
A national survey found the majority of college students say alcohol enhances social activity, allows them to have more fun and gives them something to do or talk about with friends.
Then, come the negatives.
About one in four college students say drinking has caused them to miss class, fall behind in school or perform poorly on exams or papers, according to another national survey. About 20 percent of college students have a substance-use disorder, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and researchers estimate about two of every five student dropout cases involve substance abuse.
“Every university has a problem because the nation has a problem, especially now with the opioid crisis,” says Alexandre Laudet, director emeritus of the national Center for the Study of Addictions and Recovery.
Every university has a problem because the nation has a problem, especially now with the opioid crisis.”
— Alexandre Laudet, director emeritus of the national
Still, college students in recovery are relatively rare.
Recognizing addiction and seeking help early in life is uncommon. Many of those who do seek help face a years-long cycle of relapse and recovery before getting even a year sober under their belts, Laudet says.
Would-be students in recovery often forgo college, fearing an environment labeled “abstinence hostile” in recovery circles, Laudet said. Those who do enroll at a four-year campus face unique challenges.
‘What am I doing?’
Nicolasa Dobe, for example, is still a night owl, years after the high school parties where she stayed up long after her friends had fallen asleep, swishing down the rest of their unfinished beers.
“Stopping is not a concept for me,” said Dobe, now an 18-year-old rising junior at USC.
But it isn’t easy to find sober fun past midnight in Columbia, Dobe has learned. Her interests in live music and good conversation often leave her as the only sober person at house parties and dive bars.
“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ ” says Dobe, who celebrated four years sober in April.
Others avoid those environments like a bad allergy.
“I don’t have any business in certain places at certain times,” said Brock Parrott, a 28-year-old senior social work major from Irmo who hasn’t been to a bar since getting clean in October 2013. Today, he even leaves weddings early.
But some recovering students describe a “Five Points culture” on campus that isn’t as easy to avoid. One had a roommate who bragged about smoking pot. Another had a roommate with a mini-fridge filled with beer.
Classrooms are not exempt, they say. “In class, all I hear people talking about is football or getting (drunk),” Dobe says. “Or getting (drunk) at football games.”
In class, all I hear people talking about is football or getting (drunk). Or getting (drunk) at football games.”
— Nicolasa Dobe, USC rising junior
Another source of anxiety comes with making new friends on campus, and how to navigate the first invitation to go grab drinks.
Some, like Parrott, are comfortable with a straight-faced “No” – offering no explanation.
Others, who worry about revealing their addiction, are more creative. Chris, for example, brings his own cup to football tailgates, hoping to avoid being spotted empty handed and offered a drink. Crochet, now five years sober, remembers telling a classmate who wanted to celebrate after taking a final exam that he “had to leave LSU because I was having too much fun.”
Explaining their addiction – as some have learned on first dates, in group project meetings or after classes – can be uncomfortable.
“You can just tell in their body language, it makes them nervous,” Crochet said. “Sometimes, you’ll have somebody who feels like they have to share a story. They feel bad for you.”
Perception vs. reality
USC says its students can lead fulfilling lives without drinking, and that surveys indicate the perception of drug and alcohol use among students outweighs their actual behavior.
Surveys have found 30 percent of USC students say they never drink or, at least, haven’t in the past month. Another 53 percent say they drank fewer than 10 times over the past month. That, USC says, indicates “even among those who do drink, many appear to be doing so responsibly.”
“At the same time, we’re not naive about the fact that drinking and drug use is part of our larger society, and some, unfortunately, view those activities as a traditional element of the collegiate experience,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in a statement.
The school touts its efforts to curb substance abuse and risky drinking through its mandatory alcohol-education program for incoming students. It also says it is investing more than ever on student health initiatives and services, in part to intervene early and treat mental-health issues that often intertwine with addiction.
USC’s Substance Abuse Prevention and Education office also partners with Gamecock Recovery, a student-run initiative led by Crochet.
The group’s roughly 15 members meet informally at downtown coffee shops and, every few weeks, at a cookout in Crochet’s backyard.
USC helps the group produce a newsletter and market itself to the student body, and it sends two of its members to an annual conference.
But the group says USC should do more.
‘We want there to be resources’
After leaving a solid support network back home, Chris says he was disheartened at the absence of a recovery community on USC’s campus. He joined a 12-step program in Columbia but found few people his age.
Unable to relate to other USC freshmen, he often left town on weekends or “imported” old high school buddies to Columbia for a few days. “It’s hard to find people in the same mindset as you,” he says.
That could change if USC starts a collegiate recovery program, student organizers say.
Crochet has lobbied the school since 2012 to start a recovery program, envisioning a central on-campus meeting place and a full-time USC staffer who would organize meetings, consult with students, arrange for guest speakers and schedule sober social events.
At least 88 U.S. schools have started similar programs, following the lead of Brown University in 1977 and Texas Tech University in 1986.
Students in those programs tend to have higher retention rates, graduation rates and grades than the general student body.
Last year, the College of Charleston became the first S.C. school to start a recovery program – using $300,000 in private donations that will keep it running at least three years.
The program attracted about 14 students during its first semester of operation and should add more as word gets out, director Wood Marchant said.
“A college campus can feel lonely even if you don’t have a drinking problem,” Marchant said. “But just finding your group is important. If your choice is to lead a sober life, finding other sober people on campus can make that journey a lot easier.”
A college campus can feel lonely even if you don’t have a drinking problem, But just finding your group is important. If your choice is to lead a sober life, finding other sober people on campus can make that journey a lot easier.”
— Wood Marchant, director of the College of Charleston’s new recovery program
USC has taken steps toward starting a program. It won a $10,000 grant in 2013 to begin studying other programs and training staff. But a formal program would cost more money.
Depending on their offerings, some schools run recovery programs on shoestring budgets. Other schools spend millions of dollars each year. Texas Tech, for example, offers its recovering students sober dorm rooms, scholarships and study-abroad opportunities.
USC spokesman Stensland said the school is proud to partner with Gamecock Recovery but that money at the state-funded school is tight.
“Our ability to provide services is directly tied to our available financial resources,” Stensland said. “We have consistently advocated for additional state support of higher education, but the shift to a primarily tuition-based funding model makes it more challenging to address students’ core educational needs as well the support services that can help them achieve.”
Our ability to provide services is directly tied to our available financial resources. We have consistently advocated for additional state support of higher education, but the shift to a primarily tuition-based funding model makes it more challenging to address students’ core educational needs as well the support services that can help them achieve.”
— USC spokesman Jeff Stensland
Crochet, however, fears Gamecock Recovery simply will peter out when he graduates, as it did after he left school with a bachelor’s degree in 2015.
“We’re not trying to say you can’t drink or party,” he says. “But, for the students who need something else, we want there to be resources.”
Addiction on campus
1 in 5
... college students have a substance-use disorder
1 in 4
... say drinking has hampered their studies
... of dropout cases involve substance abuse
... of incoming USC freshmen ask for more information about the school’s recovery resources; that would be about 170 students this fall
U.S. colleges and universities have recovery programs. Texas Tech, for example, offers its recovering students sober dorm rooms, scholarships and study-abroad opportunities.
College recovery programs in South Carolina — started last year at the College of Charleston using $300,000 in private donations. The program attracted about 14 students during its first semester of operation but should add more as word gets out, its director says