By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A new college residence offers students 12-step living—for a price
Some of the worst moments of 19-year-old Cameron Steck's life have occurred in college dormitories. On his first day as a college freshman at SUNY Buffalo in the fall of 2011, he began a three-week beer-drinking binge that ended in what he now describes as "an emotional breakdown." As he recalls, "I lost my mind."
A heavy drinker and soccer standout in high school who received a DWI on his prom night, Steck decided to give college another try—immediately. Moving back home to Long Island, he enrolled at CW Post, where he started the semester late. His second crack at managing the freedoms of college life was just as brief and even more disastrous, ending when his friend's roommate found him in their dorm room with a bottle of vodka and a suicide note.
That led to a brief stay in a psychiatric facility and the realization, he says, that he was an alcoholic. Steck dedicated the next eight months—the rest of what would have been his freshman year—to establishing his sobriety, with stays in residential treatment facilities in Connecticut and Florida. Then he decided to give college one more go.
But he didn't want to live in a dormitory. That's why, in August, Steck moved into Tribeca Twelve, a new residential community in Manhattan for college students in recovery. He lived there all semester, without taking a sip of alcohol, while enrolled in a communications-arts program at the midtown campus of the New York Institute of Technology.
Tribeca Twelve is New York City's first attempt at answering a question raised by leaders in the emerging field of collegiate recovery: Where should college students with substance-abuse problems live if the worst possible place anyone in recovery could live is a college dorm?
According to a 2007 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 49 percent of all full-time college students engage in binge drinking, drug abuse, or both, and a full 23 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse. And colleges in New York City, while often less tethered to hard-partying Greek life than large state universities, are not immune. "There's no college in this country that is not having to grapple with these issues," says Dr. Zoe Ragouzeos, director of NYU's Counseling and Wellness Services.
City colleges are tackling substance-abuse issues in often innovative ways. The New School sends health educators into dorms and to a class taken by all first-year students in its Eugene Lang division to discuss safe alcohol use. First-year students at NYU are required to complete AlcoholEdu, a two- to three-hour Internet alcohol-education module, before arriving on campus. To support students in recovery, NYU hosts AA meetings on campus and provides free acupuncture that "really helps with cravings," says New School health educator Tamara Oyola-Santiago. Both schools also offer individual counseling that can be tailored to help students achieve their sobriety goals.
NYU offers sober floors in three of its dorms, yet no city university has residential facilities specifically tailored for students in recovery—a fact that surprised Dr. Barbara Kistenmacher, the executive director of Hazelden New York. Hazelden, the venerable Minnesota-based addiction treatment center that originated the 12-step program, operates a Chelsea outpatient facility, where, Kistenmacher says, her staff treats many young people who got clean after dropping out of college but then relapsed when they returned to college—and college dorms. She says that she and her colleagues found it remarkable that, in a city with 500,000 college students between ages 18 and 25, "there was no collegiate sober-living option for students in recovery."
Dr. Kitty Harris, director of the Center for Addiction and Recovery at Texas Tech, which for more than 25 years has provided therapeutically supported sober housing for Texas Tech students in recovery, sees the lack of housing tailored to students in recovery in New York as the manifestation of a wider pattern. Colleges, says Harris, focus most of their energy on prevention efforts rather than on students in recovery—in part, she says, because "there is a stigma" associated with students who have chemical dependencies.
In the meantime, Hazelden stepped in, opening Tribeca Twelve, the city's first therapeutically supported collegiate residence, in October 2011. Tribeca Twelve is open to students attending any area school, as well as students who are not currently enrolled in college. The residence offers a large therapeutic staff, with counselors ready to talk with any resident who's feeling lonely or experiencing cravings, 24 hours a day. Residents are required to attend one AA meeting per day in a center on the building's ground floor. There's also a level of luxury unmatched by almost any college dorm, with marble in the bathrooms, Silestone kitchen counters, and a living room fireplace, as well as a furnished roof deck and a music studio.
All this doesn't come cheap. Tribeca Twelve charges residents $5,500 per month for their stay and doesn't accept student health insurance. Steck, who considered enrolling at Rutgers, which offers a nationally recognized housing program for students in recovery on the model of Texas Tech's, decided on Tribeca Twelve in spite of its cost; he says that he wanted to live near his sister in Manhattan, and hopes to ultimately work as an elementary school teacher in NYC. "I knew going in that it would be for a limited time," he says when asked about the cost of living in the facility, which his family is paying for and which is nearly three times the cost of living in NYU's most expensive dorm. He says he used the enhanced services on one of his first nights in the facility, when he walked downstairs at 3 a.m. to discuss worries about his future. Back in his room after a brief chat with a counselor, "I slept like a baby," he says.