At Augsburg, some students mix studies and sobriety

Recovery U
Augsburg College students in the StepUP program, which provides housing and supportive services for recovering alcoholics and addicts, play games to get to know one another on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, at Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

As college students head back to school this week, a small incoming class at Augsburg College is trying to do it -- sober.

The two dozen new students in the school's StepUP program have all struggled with substance abuse.

After getting clean, they have chosen the small liberal arts college in Minneapolis -- and a program that's been around for 15 years - in the hopes of getting another shot at life.

Parents feel a mix of pride and apprehension when dropping off a child at college. Those emotions can be especially intense for parents who have survived their children's addictions.

"I think every parent in there can tell you it was like a knife being twisted in your gut watching your child slowly kill themselves in a way," said Kim Yingling, who came from Little Rock, Ark., to help move in her son at Augsburg.

Today 21-year-old Kevin Yingling looks healthy. He's tall, with a tattooed leg and a hipster mustache, ready to make friends and get serious about school.

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But it was just seven months ago when he was deep into drugs -- not only using but dealing.

He says things turned scary after he was robbed.

"I didn't have any money to pay this guy back, and he probably would have killed me," Kevin Yingling said. "I was like, 'Hey, Mom ... I really need money because I'm in a terrible situation, and I just don't have anywhere to go.'"

That was the breaking point for Kevin. After his parents settled the debt, he went into treatment. He is sober: seven months and counting.

During orientation, StepUP students get to pass their very first test in college -- a mandatory urinalysis showing they are clean.

Most of the students have already gone through rehab. They need to be at least six months sober.

Even so, the start of the fall semester presents an adjustment for many of them, says Scott Washburn, the program's assistant director.

Recovery U
Augsburg College student Kiran Anderson, center, reaches for an outstretched hand as she tries to scale a wall Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, on a ropes course at Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wis. Anderson and about 80 other students in the school's StepUP program, for recovering alcoholics and addicts, were on a daylong team-building trip.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"This is the first time they've tried to do school -- particularly college -- sober," Washburn said. "So getting up early in the morning, showing up for class, managing their time, that's the first big hurdle."

But he says once they take root, they flourish. The program has about a 93 percent abstinence rate, meaning 7 percent of students relapse in typical years, he said.

On move-in day, students cart their duffel bags and laundry baskets into a dry dorm that houses about 80. They must sign a contract agreeing to abstain from alcohol and other drugs, and to see a chemical dependency counselor on campus each week.

For their first semester, they also pledge to avoid places like casinos and nightclubs. Nor are they allowed to have intimate relationships with other StepUP students in that time.

It may seem grim for college living, but new student Jesse Christmyer of Philadelphia says after spending 14 months in treatment, he knows how to follow rules.

"Where I was before, there were more strict rules," Christmyer said. "There weren't even girls for miles."

And there's good reason for those rules, says Dr. Joseph Lee, the youth medical director at the Hazelden center in Plymouth. He thinks programs like StepUP are a good idea and says he recommends a sober community environment like StepUp to his patients considering college.

"When kids go to college, and they have a vulnerability for addiction, and they hang out with other kids who do not, who say, 'Why don't you have a beer with me, or why don't you smoke a joint with me?' Those kids are not addicted," Lee said. "And they think they can hang with them, but they can't. So they need a protective community to go home to, where they feel like they have a normal life and still know where the boundaries and parameters are."

More colleges are introducing recovery communities to help tackle the problems of drug abuse and excessive drinking. Nationwide, there are 17 colleges that are part of a Association of Recovery Schools. The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth offers recovery support, and St. Cloud State University just started a small program this fall.

At Augsburg, fostering a sense of community with other students in recovery is essential. That's how the new StepUP students found themselves in the woods of western Wisconsin for games and team-building exercises. After all, living with 80 young people all going through different phases of sobriety can have its share of drama.

MTV approached StepUP staff several years ago thinking the situation had all the elements of a reality TV show. The students gave that idea the thumbs down, Washburn said.

At Camp St. Croix, the students traipsed through the woods, climbed poles and relied on each other as they walked across a tightrope.

Kiran Anderson is feeling good about the friends she's making. She thinks her third year at Augsburg will be different from her first two, when she says she drank and used amphetamines to fit in.

"It's constant drugs and alcohol," she said, "and that's socially acceptable, as opposed to, this is the reverse type of peer pressure. When you're not clean and sober, people will call you out on it.

"Coming to a community like this, where everybody wants you to succeed, and when you don't, they're there to catch you when you're falling," Anderson said.

Mark and Jesse Christmyer
Mark Christmyer, left, and his son Jesse pause from unpacking at Augsburg College on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. Jesse Christmyer, 21, of Philadelphia is a first-year student in the college's StepUP program for students recovering from substance abuse. Now 17 months sober, Christmyer said he is "ready for a new beginning" in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Back at the dorm, Christmyer, the student from Philadelphia, is getting settled. His dad, Mark, remembers the bad times and what addiction did to his son. His worries became reality.

"I said, 'Jesse, I see three things happening that are bad. One is we get a call that you're found on a park bench, and two, that you've just been arrested. And the third, the cop just found you dead in a gutter in Philadelphia. And two out of the three ..."

Two out of the three happened. And as his dad begins to choke up, Jesse comforts him by saying, "But I stopped the third one, Dad. I stopped the third."