Helping expand recovery to community colleges
Sterling Bryant felt right at home the moment he spotted the barista on wheels.
“I saw the Virginia Tech Facebook page post something about the Recovery Community’s coffee bike, and I thought, hey, I’m in recovery. There’s a place for me on campus,” Bryant said of that day last fall.
“I want to be able to look other students in the eyes and tell them, it’s OK, it’s not a moral failure, and to let them know they’re not alone,” said Bryant.
Building on the work of his predecessor, Jon Dance, Bryant is leading the Southwest Virginia Recovery Organization for Community College Students (ROCCS) as a Hokie Wellness recovery outreach and support specialist. The federally funded effort connects to the university’s original land-grant mission by positioning the Hokies as the hub and primary support for a new network of community college-based recovery communities in the southwest part of the state.
“We want to help create safe spaces for students to come and connect within these community colleges,” said Dance, whose role shifted to recovery community coordinator this summer. “Ultimately though, we don’t want these to just be an extension of Virginia Tech’s recovery program. We want these to be the community colleges’ programs. We’re just trying to help them get there.”
September is annually recognized as National Recovery Month by the White House. Numerous Virginia Tech activities are scheduled, including the Pop Up Recovery Walk at McComas Hall on Sept. 29 at 10 a.m. Hokies are also invited to join a virtual “walk across America.”
Such events align with the mission of universitywide #VTBetterTogether mental health campaign. The public-health effort has sought to elevate both awareness and education related to mental mental as prerequisite to overall well-being since its launch in 2020.
Funded by a federal grant through Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Service’s State Opioid Response, ROCCS launched in the spring of 2021 as an extension of the Virginia Collegiate Recovery Network. What began in spring 2021 with Dance cold calling community colleges has grown to include five community college partners — New River, Wytheville, Virginia Highlands, Mountain Empire, and Southwest Virginia community colleges.
“My first thought honestly was, 'Is this really needed,'” said Susan Evans, dean of transfer and educational partnerships at Wytheville Community College. “Once I took a closer look, I discovered there was really a need for us to have those support services. And it’s really taken off for us as a result of our connection to Jon and to Virginia Tech.”
Evans said the network has even led Wytheville and New River community colleges to partnering on a two-year grant to fund a full-time recovery support specialist who will split time between the campuses.
Similarly, Shasta Sowers, said joining ROCCS had greatly increased her familiarity with this type of support for students at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon.
“When I first started this position, one thing I noticed was students being open with me about their struggles with recovery or the people in their families who were struggling, so I was glad to know there was something out there to support them,” said Sowers, connections coach at Virginia Highlands.
Sowers said she’s hopeful the program will not only serve to help those students, but also further destigmatize the topic and provide some real-world connections for Virginia Highlands students studying human services.
The federal grant is facilitated through Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), whose Rams in Recovery program has a long-standing relationship with the Virginia Tech Recovery Community and Josh Redding, an assistant director with Hokie Wellness who helped found it.
“There’s a lot of support for students in recovery at Tech that’s not available on other campuses,” said Tom Bannard, VCU’s assistant director of substance use and recovery support. “The measure for me is, 'If I had a young person who was in recovery, would I be comfortable sending them to a school,' and in most cases the answer is, 'No.' But Tech is one of the places I would say yes to.”
Bannard has worked with Redding since the founding of Virginia Tech’s Recovery Community in 2015. Since then, the Blacksburg community has grown to include outreach, such as the aforementioned coffee bike and sober tailgates, and expanded into a dedicated space in Payne Hall called “The Roost.” Fourteen members of the Virginia Tech Recovery Community graduated last spring.
“It’s been really awesome to see them grow, so we got together with Josh and said, 'What would it look like to expand college recovery in that area of the state?'” Bannard said. “This is the first expansion into community colleges, so I think that’s what we’re all really excited about because so many people in recovery start their journey back to education through community colleges.”
The need for recovery support on community college campuses in Virginia has been a recent focus of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services.
“To have a community of people who get you, who understand the struggles you’re going through with recovery is huge on a college campus,” said Angela Weight, state opioid response and grant coordinator for the department. “We’ve done research and surveys that show community colleges are an underserved population. While recovery programs are becoming more commonplace at four-year campuses, community colleges haven't received the attention and consideration that bigger schools have. We're excited to be changing that landscape here in Virginia."
Weight said she’s particularly excited for this pilot program to take place with the resources Southwest Virginia has in place and with the support of the strong recovery community Virginia Tech has built from the ground up.
“Starting it in this area, I feel like it’s going to done right and done well because we've been so impressed with the momentum of recovery growth in Southwest Virginia and it's not slowing down.,” Weight said. “I think this work will really bring attention to the need for recovery services at all levels of education across the state.”
ROCCS not only has the potential to provide a statewide recovery model for community colleges, but also to positively impact the regions of those colleges for years to come.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that people with chronic mental health issues tend to see those come to light in their late teens and early adulthood,” said Mike Wade, coordinator of community wellness and outreach for New River Valley Community Services. “And we know there’s also a very high risk in that age group for substance misuse and overdose. So trying to intervene and get people connected to resources at an early point in their lives is much better for them when it comes to overall health outcomes and their ability to be productive and function in society.”
Wade said Dance has been a regular attendee of many community prevention coalition meetings, both gaining insight about local resources and providing insight from his own journey.
“I think unless you’ve gone through it yourself, it’s hard to really realize and appreciate how difficult the struggle is and what the real causes are that lead someone to struggle with substance use in the first place,” Wade said.
Dance’s work in recovery began with joining the Virginia Tech Recovery Community when he returned to Virginia Tech as a student in January 2021 after a 23-year hiatus.
“I came to here in ’94 and spent about three years in and out of Virginia Tech. I’m not really sure it was for my lifestyle back then,” Dance said. “I spent the next 23 years in the food service business, and alcohol took over. “
Dance is currently on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in human development this spring and has already begun work in the Master of Public Health program. He said he isn’t quite sure why he was drawn to reenroll at Virginia Tech upon getting out of treatment in September 2020, but the result is very clear.
“Coming back to Virginia Tech and the Recovery Community at Virginia Tech totally changed my life,” said Dance, who marked two years sober this month.
Bryant, who is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has had his own journey to recovery. He celebrated four years of sobriety this summer.
Along with now overseeing ROCCS, Bryant hopes to build new bridges with the university’s veterans and faith-based communities. He said he not only sees this work as a part of his personal journey, but also now part of his mission as a Hokie.
“It provides hope, but it really also follows Ut Prosim,” Bryant said. “To achieve sustainable recovery, you have to give it away, and that’s what we do with this work. So Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), it’s literally what we have to do to keep what we have."