WVU Collegiate Recovery students, staff and friends pose for a photo during the 2019 WVU Homecoming Parade.

WVU Collegiate Recovery students, staff and friends pose for a photo during the 2019 WVU Homecoming Parade.

On a recent Friday morning, Drew O’Connell logged into a special Zoom meeting: it was time for his friends in the WVU Collegiate Recovery program to graduate.

“To watch the people who paved the way for me to go to school to graduate, that gives me hope,” he said.

O'Connell is one of many students that attend Collegiate Recovery at WVU for community and connection as they progress to graduation. The program serves students in recovery from substance abuse, eating disorders or mental health or behavioral concerns.

Director Olivia Pape said the program’s goal is to show students that college life in recovery is possible.

“It doesn't have to be boring to be in recovery,” Pape said. “You can still have a vibrant collegiate experience."

O’Connell said he had tried college once before, but with the Collegiate Recovery program he found a community of friends and mentors he could learn from the second time around.

"When I started this journey, I had no idea you could even go to school in recovery,” O’Connell said. "Collegiate Recovery and the kids in front of me shined a light on a new dream.”

In front of his mentors, fellow students, and WVU President E. Gordon Gee, O’Connell received a $3,000 scholarship for the addiction studies minor as he works toward his degree.

“That was a big accomplishment for myself,” he said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has moved online to a “Virtual Serenity Place,” named after the program’s physical location on campus. Pape said she’s impressed that students continue to show up over the summer months when attendance would normally dip.

The Virtual Serenity Place consists of a daily variety of sessions on mindfulness, goal-setting and yoga through Zoom.

“Serenity Chats with Carruth,” a partnership with the WVU Carruth Center, is one of the most successful sessions. Pape said a recent conversation on the topic of “Living in the Virtual World” was also well received by students.

“It just opened up the space to have a dialogue about the challenges of this time,” Pape said.

She said many students who struggled to get to the downtown campus for the morning “Start Your Day Right” session can now attend virtually, a change that will continue in the future to reach more students.

O’Connell said he has been attending some of the Virtual Serenity Place sessions. 

On Thursday nights, he said he has a Zoom call with sponsors from Narcotics Anonymous of Greater Morgantown.

“It's grand sponsor, great-grand sponsor, sponsor, sponsees,” said O’Connell, "I was very blessed to get into a sponsorship family that absolutely cares for one another.”

He said with everything being virtual he was able to attend a N.A. meeting over Zoom with a group in Dublin, Ireland. 

Early in his recovery, O’Connell said he couldn’t imagine not having meetings and has seen a lot of his friends fail during this time. He said he’s been relying on the “humans that get me through everyday.”

He said he uses the techniques he learned through in his 12-step process including sitting alone, meditating, practicing yoga, and writing.

“It's a struggle for anyone to sit alone because you've got to sit with your thoughts," O’Connell said.

In May, Collegiate Recovery received a $40,000 state grant to fund the Virtual Serenity Place, professional development opportunities for students, and a partnership with Adventure WV. Pape said the funds will allow the program to reach a greater number of students.

She said the program has benefits for all students, faculty and staff, not just for students in recovery.

"It's really trying to help individuals improve their health and wellbeing and strive to reach full potential in their lives during their time at WVU and beyond,” she said. “We welcome any student who is interested in just that."

O’Connell said he’s thankful for the friends and mentors he’s met through the program.

"Collegiate Recovery is a family,” he said, “My family." 

Students interested in Collegiate Recovery can learn more about it on the program’s website.