For many people, getting their education goals back in good standing after rehabilitation is the pinnacle of the recovery journey. Going (back) to school represents a new start: planting the seeds of a new life, and setting the scene to learn the skills and knowledge that can open the academic, professional, and social doors that the past addiction slammed shut. Picking up education after substance abuse and treatment is challenging, but such a step provides a number of opportunities that might have once seemed unreachable.
How to Approach Higher Education in Recovery
There is much enthusiasm that comes with recovery, and with the idea of being a sober, focused student again, that enthusiasm can bring a real danger that you might rush things. School, like recovery, is a serious commitment; it requires patience, hard work, and persistence through failure and adversity. Despite excitement at the thought of learning and growing your mind, getting your education goals back on track is far more than a simple case of signing up for classes and graduating a couple years later. There is the financial aspect to sort out, balancing time between work and school (and recovery and social life) as well as learning how to work with other people, learning how to work by yourself, learning how to work through classes you don’t understand (or even like), and learning how to take criticism and feedback from professors.
This may seem like the basic reality of university life, but for a person in recovery, it is important that even the most basic of bases must be covered. For this reason, working with a recovery coach or sponsor, a family member, and an admissions official from the school of choice – someone trained in the needs of recovering addicts – is key. Applying for higher education is a daunting prospect for anyone, and the process can be somewhat more complicated for a recovering person.
To make the most out of your chance to go back to school, your recovery coach will work with you to set up a plan to help you reach your goal. The first stage of the plan entails understanding what your education needs are. Your desire to get back on the academic track has to be more than simply wanting a degree; you need to have a clear idea of why you want to go back to school. You may have a general notion of what field you want to go into and what you might like to do with that degree, but your education goals will need to be specific, measurable, and timely. Simply getting an education for the sake of it will not be good enough; as with everything in recovery, you will need to be able to articulate why you’re on a given path.
Your recovery coach can help you clarify what job you would like to apply for when you graduate and how that line of work complements your skills and abilities. When those variables are established, your academic journey will have the direction and purpose it needs to be successful.
Planning Your Academic Journey
To help you with this part of the process, your recovery coach or therapist might ask you to come up with a plan to achieve your education goals.
It might be helpful to think of certain questions to ask yourself as part of the plan:
Why are you going (back) to school?
What degree would you like to have?
Would you need a GED or can you apply to college immediately?
Can you take the required standardized tests?
Do you have any credits from a previous institution that you can transfer?
Would it be better to be a fulltime or part-time student?
How will you pay for the degree?
In what ways will you ensure that your academic commitments don’t infringe on your recovery responsibilities (like going to meetings)?
If you can answer all these questions (and others like them) to the satisfaction of yourself, your recovery coach, and/or whoever else is invested in your recovery and your educational journey, then you are in a good position to think about going back to school.
Mental Health and Sobriety Risks on Campus
Confidence and belief in your potential are vital components of addiction recovery, but they need to be tempered. Too many people have overwhelmed themselves because they rushed headlong into a job, a relationship, or an academic program fresh out of treatment. When they find themselves struggling, confused, and frustrated, the temptation to throw everything out and get drunk or high becomes too strong to resist.
Going back to school presents an added challenge; alcohol is an inherent part of student life on many college campuses, and it’s not just responsible drinking. More than 40 percent of students engage in binge drinking, and other students are abusing prescription medications as “study drugs” to make it through finals week and deadlines.
In many ways, resuming your higher education goals presents a double-edged sword. The opportunities for personal and professional growth are precisely what recovery is all about; however, the mental health stress has become a “growing problem among students,” says The Guardian. With chemical substances within easy reach (even for students who don’t live on campus), you should meticulously and honestly evaluate if you’re truly ready to go back to school.
For this reason, it might be a better idea for you to wait a year before returning to college. It is the same principle behind why people in recovery are advised to wait for a year before make any significant and unnecessary life changes, like dating or starting a job. Recovery is a process of self-discovery and learning in itself; taking on the responsibility of higher education (or, similarly, a relationship or a new job) is not recommended for a person still testing the waters of sobriety and healthy living after the ordeal of addiction. After a year has passed, you will be in a much better position to judge if you are truly ready to embark on this journey.
What to Do While You Wait
Another advantage to waiting is to give yourself time for your recovery schedule to take hold. Going to meetings and checking in with your recovery coach and/or sponsor is of paramount importance for the first year of your sobriety. Doing these things should take precedence over anything else, and many people new to recovery have been derailed because they had to miss meetings due to study group sessions, homework, and deadlines. By putting your recovery first, you will make your therapy meetings take precedence over everything else in your life, which is what you will need for the first year of your journey. When the time comes for you to think about getting your education goals back in good standing, you can do so with the confidence that your fundamentals will not be damaged.
An additional factor to consider as you prepare for going back to school is getting your GED, or your general education development. In the event you did not finish high school (and did not receive a high school diploma), then you will have to take a GED test. Most colleges and universities across the country will accept a GED diploma or certificate from applicants who didn’t graduate high school, but such applicants will also need to sit for standardized tests, like the SAT or the ACT (or the GRE, for graduate-level programs). It takes time to study for these tests (and money to actually take them), so pacing your plans to get your academic goals back on track is important. The tests are quite demanding in their own way, and rushing through the testing and admissions process will do you more harm than good.
Looking for the Right School
One way to ensure that your academic goals align with your treatment priorities is to research the right college. Your recovery coach can work with you to identify schools that have groups, facilities, and resources for sober students. As more and more colleges become aware of the dangers of unbridled drinking, administrations have taken steps to make their respective campuses welcoming and safe spaces for new students who want to engage with the larger campus body, but without compromising on their recovery.
Examples of this are profiled by Psychology Today, which writes of how Harvard University has a designated department to assist students in recovery and students who abstain from alcohol for other reasons. Boston College sponsors social activities over the weekend where students are not exposed to alcohol but can still make friends and enjoy themselves. Most other schools will offer similar accommodations for students in recovery, and the accessibility of such resources should be a factor in your research for the right school.
While some schools offer alcohol-free dorms, others offer transitional living programs, which provide their own counseling and recovery services. These facilities are usually located near campus and take individual medical and mental health histories when grouping students together to ensure as much compatibility and harmony as possible.
By researching the right college campus for your situation, you should be able to find the contact information for the school’s counseling center (or equivalent). Administrations are well aware of the mental health strain that comes from higher education, and they also know that for students in recovery, stress is not to be taken lightly. By talking with a person at the school’s counseling department, you will be able to make your reservations and concerns known to the people who can suggest campus (or local) resources to help you through the tougher parts of going back to school. Making connections like this is why researching schools is so important to getting your educational goals back in good standing after drug rehab.
Can You Study Online?
A most recent option that might be available is to take courses online. Computing advancements have moved a lot of college coursework to the cloud, and a number of schools offer greater flexibility to nontraditional students, especially students who have disabilities (such as past substance abuse) that may preclude regular class attendance. Your recovery coach can help you find a college with the right accreditation. A number of “online colleges” are really nothing more than diploma mills, and for years, such criminal enterprises tarnished the idea of getting a degree over the Internet. However, legitimate online colleges are on the rise, says Big Think, and more students are opting for the distance learning route.
Online learning provides a number of advantages to a student in recovery and its own set of challenges. Since the work is mostly remote, it is easier to create a study schedule that works around recovery responsibilities (such as attending meetings), and there is no danger of being on a college campus with a heavy drinking atmosphere. Online courses usually progress slower than traditional classroom-based courses, so you have the luxury of taking the program at your own pace. However, the lack of socializing and interpersonal relationships can be its own hindrance; a large part of recovery is getting to know people in different contexts, and online learning would deprive you of that. Additionally, the slow pace of online courses can mean that you would be “in school” for as many as six years instead of the standard four years for a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, people in recovery need a degree of structure in their lives. It becomes harder to stick to a schedule when you are granted too much freedom.
Your therapist or recovery coach will work with you to determine whether online college is the best way to get your educational goals back in good standing. One advantage of this evolving approach to higher education is that it does not always have to be one way over the other way; a number of schools offer both components as part of their programs, so a student can have the benefits of both a standard degree program and an online course (or two) for convenience. If your research leads you to a school that provides this resource, disclosing your disability to the admissions office, and working with the school’s appropriate wellness department, can help you determine if you qualify for a joint online/classroom degree, and, if you do, how such a degree can be structured so you can get your degree in the most direct way possible while not sabotaging your recovery.
Writing about Your Addiction
Most colleges will require potential students to submit personal statements as part of their respective application packages. Personal statements or essays give prospective students a platform to display their critical thinking and personalities in literally their own words. A well-written essay can be the tiebreaker between two students with similar academic qualifications and test scores, and it is therefore a significant part of the application process. It is a way individuals can distinguish themselves from the other candidates.
But how can you talk about your past substance abuse (and other related issues, like a criminal record) in this medium? One of the keys is to be honest. As your recovery coach will tell you, the fact that you are in recovery is a story in and of itself; many other people who have fallen under the sway of addictive substances have not made it to the point where they can seriously think about getting their education back in good standing, so you already have a unique perspective. It is a perspective the admissions office of the school you’re applying to is unlikely to have seen.
As another incentive for being honest, disclosing the truth about your addiction and recovery will make it easier to request time off to attend counseling sessions than if you attempted to hide your disability. Additionally, if there were any criminal issues stemming from your past substance abuse, the college could dismiss you for lying or withholding that information during the admissions process. Consult with your recovery coach and do your research to best determine how much of your past you should write about.
However, you need to do more than simply write about your addiction struggles in your essay. Your personal statement is your chance to show the admissions office how you overcame significant adversity in your life. Perhaps you’re so determined to resume your academic journey that you scored better than average on your standardized test scores, or you have become a mentor to other people who are newly recovered and just out of treatment. Work closely with your recovery coach to find the best angle to tell your story of how hard you worked to put your substance use behind you and make the most out of the second chance you’ve earned.
Similarly, if you tell the admissions office that the mistakes you’ve made in your past are not indicative of who you are now or what you can achieve, you will need to back up that claim with some specifics. This could mean talking about your volunteer or community work, or how you’ve made careful changes in your life to distance yourself from relapse triggers.
Making Your Recovery Story about You
The problem that many potential students have is that their personal statements tend to be general, speaking in broad terms of changing the world or ambiguously writing about how hard they’ve worked to get where they are. Your story of overcoming your history as a substance abuser gives you an opportunity to write an essay that no one else can write. Your treatment and recovery sessions have already told you that your story can serve as an example of not only the dangers of addiction, but also the reality and hope of recovery. With careful work, your personal essays can make the same argument and tell why your story makes you the ideal candidate for that school and that program.
Going into specifics in your essay will not be easy, and your recovery coach should be able to assist you in this part of the process. But being specific about how bad your problem was, how hard you’ve worked to put it behind you, and how bright your future is will set you apart from other students vying for admission. That level of detail will not only make you a memorable candidate, it will make you a believable candidate. Any student can try to be memorable, but it is only the ones who make themselves believable who will be seriously considered for admission.
Writing is not everyone’s strong suit, and being honest about personal difficulties and mistakes is a challenge in and of itself, to say nothing about the larger context of applying to a school. But the personal essay does command “considerable importance” in the applications process, in the words of a 2009 survey put out by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. For this reason, it should not be taken lightly, and it could play a key role in helping you get your academic goals back on track.
Writing a personal statement might also work well as a recovery tool by itself. It will be similar to some of the counseling work you did in treatment, and if you kept a journal (as most people in recovery do), you already have some practice with putting your thoughts down. The experience of writing an essay will be a milestone of your recovery journey – one that lends itself well to the narrative of taking a big personal step, like going back to school.
Paying to Go to School
A big question facing anyone who wants to return to school is: “How do I pay for my degree?” If your goal is to get your academic journey back on track after drug rehab, the issue of affording a higher education program takes on new connotations. Your drug habit probably dealt a blow to your savings, and paying for treatment could mean that you are starting your recovery without much in the bank. This is one reason why waiting a year before thinking about school is a good idea. That year will give you time to rebuild your finances and demonstrate to the school that you can contribute to the cost of your degree.
The important factor here is that you may not have to pay the whole amount. A number of governmental, private, and nonprofit organizations offer various forms of scholarships, grants, and financial aid based on merit or need. There will be a lot of paperwork to do, so the sooner you can connect with your recovery coach or an admissions counselor at the school of your choice, the better chance you will have of securing the right kind of financial aid before the respective deadlines.
Additionally, your past history of substance abuse may qualify you for some financial aid based on disability. Some grants can be stacked with others, and some cannot. Conducting the research to determine which grants will work for you may be time-consuming and arduous, but having this information is how your education goals will get back in good standing.
Finding Balance in Recovery and at School
If you are trying to balance a job with the prospect of continuing your education, you can ask your employer if your company offers reimbursement for tuition. Some organizations will pay for their employees to enroll in school if it means that the degree will make the employee better qualified within the company; in other words, the degree will have to be related to your line of work. This is not an easy track, as you will have to make time for your job, your coursework, your recovery responsibilities, and yourself. You may have to reduce your working hours (and with them, your income), or you may have to enroll in school as a part-time student, which may affect the extent of the financial aid you are eligible to receive. Again, research, and conversations with your recovery coach and admissions counselor at the school of your choice will clarify your options.
Past substance abuse rewrites many of the life changes that most people take for granted, and getting your education goals back in good standing in recovery is no exception. Everything, from disclosing your addiction in your application essays to living on (or near) campus to paying for school, has to be looked at through the lens of being in recovery and what the responsibility and demands of higher education mean for your sobriety.
But being in recovery means that you have many more options than you did in your past life, and leveraging these options can mean being given the opportunity to work for a degree that opens dozens of professional and social doors. By closely working with your recovery coach, the admissions staff at the school of your choice, as well as other people who have invested in your recovery, it is very possible to get your academic journey up and running. The inevitable challenges and frustrations can become part of your recovery story, leading to not just a graduation ceremony, but also a fulfilling and productive life.