How Washingtonian Society is training student groups to support people in recovery

The group will host training programs throughout winter term


Washingtonian Society’s recovery resources are now available virtually. Photo courtesy of Katie Evans.

Laura Calhoun

Washingtonian Society is leading workshops to guide student leaders through supporting people who are in recovery from addiction.

Josh Gross, ‘16, the university’s peer recovery support specialist, said the Recovery Ally workshop is important because it encourages community-oriented recovery.

“There’s a tendency, when we’re talking about substance use, that we can reduce it to an individual’s problem and think that we just need to treat the individual. Instead, we’re trying to approach recovery from a community perspective,” Gross said. “We really want to make W&L a place where anybody could go up to someone on … campus and ask about substance abuse resources and get a meaningful response.”

Gross credited the workshop to Tom Bannard, program coordinator for the Rams in Recovery collegiate recovery program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Last year, Washington and Lee University was one of eight schools selected by VCU as beneficiaries of a grant from Governor Ralph Northam to support programs that combat substance abuse on college campuses.

The Rams in Recovery program serves as a model for schools who received the grant and began an important relationship between Bannard and Washingtonian Society.

Bannard visited campus in the fall and hosted a Recovery Ally training session for a group of students, faculty and administrators. After that presentation, Gross and others adapted the model to fit the Washington and Lee community.

Gross said one important aspect of the program is its interactivity, where participants can work through complex scenarios about recovery allyship.

“People can actually put themselves in those situations and imagine what they would do, and we come back as a larger group to discuss what we thought,” Gross said. “It’s a situation where there are no right answers.”

The workshop curriculum also includes information about the science of substance use and recovery.

When Graham Pergande, ‘20, went through the training in the fall, one particular graph stood out to him: a self-reported measure of quality of life. Zoomed out, it seemed like the graph showed personal well-being measured higher the longer someone was in recovery. But the numbers weren’t that simple.

“You narrow that down to the first two years, and every single measure is going up and down, up and down, up and down,” Pergande said. “It emphasizes the necessity of collegiate recovery, showing that people need support … in early recovery.”

Pergande got involved with Washingtonian Society after taking leave from school to seek recovery off campus. He said that without the support networks he found as a result of Washingtonian, it’s doubtful he would have returned.

“When I came back to school, I was really worried about just being able to be here … because my experience before I left was so centered around partying,” Pergande said. “I didn’t know who I was going to be. Washingtonian gave me a space where it was okay to be me.”

Katie Evans, ‘22, who is the social chair and the first work-study student for Washingtonian Society, said she had a similar experience when she joined the organization during her first year.

“The meeting was the first space that I had stepped in that felt genuinely vulnerable and open,” Evans said. “It was just a really stark contrast to being on W&L’s campus. No one had this mask on.”

Evans also completed the training in the fall and said her two most important takeaways were the importance of allyship and the use of humanizing language for people experiencing substance abuse.

“[The language] helps me talk to people who are in recovery in a way that I don’t have to worry about it, that I’m offending anyone,” Evans said. “I think the main point of the Recovery Ally program is to empower everyone instead of stigmatizing it. That’s not productive.”

Gross said he believes that Washingtonian Society has contributed to the beginning of destigmatizing the conversation about substance abuse on campus. He said he remembers going to a Washingtonian Society meeting as a student when only three people attended and the atmosphere felt awkward.

Now, he said, the meetings are packed.

“I remember quite vividly the first time that I attended a Washingtonian Society meeting after I had graduated,” Gross said. “You could just tell that everybody knew each other. There wasn’t ice that needed to be broken down.”

Gross, Pergande and Evans all expressed hope that the Recovery Ally Program will serve as a way to involve more students in Washingtonian Society.

“I hope every person on campus would have some idea how to respond if a friend were to confide in them about a drinking or drug problem,” Pergande said.

Since the beginning of winter term, three sororities have participated in the program: Alpha Delta Pi, Kappa Kappa Theta and Pi Beta Phi.

The group trained Lamda Chi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Order and Phi Delta Theta fraternities on Sunday, Feb. 9.

Six more fraternities are scheduled for trainings in the next month.

The group plans to include other student groups in the future, Gross said.

Washingtonian Society hosts an open recovery meeting every Friday at 5:00 pm in the Washingtonian Society house for students who have had difficulty with substance abuse and their allies.