Amid addiction need, Augsburg's student recovery program seeks more participants

A person holds a small kitten
Current StepUP participant and Augsburg University student Ethan Laugen carries resident cat Bey Bey on July 19. He will begin a student teaching placement in the Twin Cities next spring.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

A community room at Augsburg University in Minneapolis has battered bean bag chairs, an Xbox console stand and even a kitten. But it and the dorm rooms above lack one thing such spaces can be known for: signs of drug or alcohol use.

Since it launched in 1997, StepUP has stood out among Twin Cities collegiate recovery programs for its longevity and impact on students.

Now, citing increases in drug and alcohol substance use disorder nationwide, Augsburg welcomes students from outside the university’s gates to participate in its program.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from drug- and alcohol-related incidents among college-aged Minnesotans continue to increase. The number of deaths of those between the ages of 18 and 22 increased 36 percent in one year from 2019 to 2020 and 76 percent from 2010 to 2020.

“Things are still going in the wrong direction,” said StepUP recruitment and outreach director Nell Hurley. “Which makes it even more important to have recovery support available in higher education.”

A person stands at a railing for a portrait
Nell Hurley poses for a photo inside the Oren Gateway Center at Augsburg University in Minneapolis on July 19.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘This is my community’

Ethan Laugen, 24, is set to graduate from Augsburg and StepUP next year. When he first started at the nearby University of Minnesota, he said he considered drinking and partying integral to his college experience.

“The reason I chose the U of M is that I wanted sports teams to follow,” he said. “I wanted tailgates, I wanted Greek life, I wanted bars and I wanted house parties.”

But by his second year on campus, Laugen’s drinking had escalated from weekend partying to finishing cases of beer alone at home every night.

After his second hospital stay caused by binge drinking, Laugen’s parents convinced him to enter in-patient treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford.

Laugen made it through several rounds of treatment but decided to take a year-long break from school to stabilize his recovery. When he finally felt ready to return, he knew he needed a completely different environment to succeed.

“If I didn’t have a routine, a support, a structure, it would have been very easy to get sucked back into that [substance use]. It’s just as much the lifestyle as it is the substance,” he said.

A person opens a tall set of blinds
Augsburg University student and StepUP participant Ethan Laugen adjusts the blinds in his shared flat inside the Oren Gateway Center in Minneapolis on July 19.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

That’s when Laugen remembered a group of college students who visited his treatment program to talk about StepUP at Augsburg. He said he was struck by how motivated and happy they seemed and wanted that experience for himself. He decided to apply and moved into Augsburg’s Oren Gateway Center in the fall of 2020.

According to StepUP Director Ericka Otterson, what sets the program apart from other collegiate recovery programs is its commitment to providing a diverse array of resources that support students wherever they’re at in their recovery.

“We take into account the complex interplay between individual relationships, community and other societal factors as we approach that individual student,” Otterson said, “But also what recovery means and looks like for them and how they continue to live and thrive in recovery.”

Most StepUP participants choose to live communally with others in the program. Every week, they meet both as a group and with a certified substance use counselor.

“This is my community,” Laugen said. “Instead of a student group or a frat, it’s StepUP. These are my people who get me, who understand me, who I get along with. And it has given me the college experience in the way that I needed a college experience.”

A shared student  common area
Student’s art adorns the walls in the shared flat inside the Oren Gateway Center at Augsburg University in Minneapolis on July 19.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘No shortage of need’

To qualify for StepUP, students must be at least six months sober and submit to regular drug tests. Otterson said 93 percent of participants of the 25-year-old program report staying sober each year. She added StepUP participants tend to have higher GPAs than that of the average Augsburg student.

But since the pandemic, Otterson said, program participation has declined. She attributed that trend to the COVID-19 shutdown of some treatment centers Augsburg recruits from or staffing issues that still persist. The program usually has around 80 students, but they only anticipate 55 enrolled next year.

Otterson said the struggle to recruit contributed to the decision to open the program up to students attending colleges and universities other than Augsburg.

“There’s no shortage of need, and students time and again will say the community has been the most valuable aspect of participating in this program,” she said. “So the larger the community is each year, the more opportunity there is for that.”

A large blocky campus building
The Oren Gateway Center, location of the StepUP Program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, is open to students even outside the university.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Preliminary partnerships

StepUP recently formed their first formal partnership with the University of St. Thomas, whose students will be able apply their own financial aid toward StepUP housing starting this fall.

But the program is open to any students who are interested. Two from Minneapolis Community and Technical College are already enrolled, and the University of Minnesota plans to spread the word about the opportunity to their students soon.

Augsburg students still get the best deal — their only payment being the cost of housing. Outside students have to pay an extra $1,500 program fee per semester.

While Laugen says he hopes to see more students take part in StepUP, he recognizes the cost of the program will remain a barrier to some. He encourages students to form supportive communities for themselves.

“StepUP isn’t necessarily an option for everybody,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t create an environment of people who love and respect and care about you. StepUP is a shining example of what things can be, of what things can look like, something I think for other collegiate recovery programs to emulate.”

A person holds out a plate of cookies as another bites one
Cassidy Disrud (left) offers Ethan Laugen a sugar cookie outside her flat at Augsburg University in Minneapolis on July 19. She will begin working toward her LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors) at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies in the fall.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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