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Ole Miss Helps Student Alcoholics With New Program

By Sandra Knispel | Published 22 Nov 2011 11:06am | comments
Amber Henson, a marketing senior at the University of Mississippi, has been sober for 16 months now.

Alcohol abuse, underage and binge drinking are typical problems at most college campuses across the country. But, as MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, the University of Mississippi now has a collegiate recovery program that places Ole Miss among a small group of national trailblazers.

To many Ole Miss students the Oxford Square with its bars and restaurants is the only place to be on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. The University of Mississippi, of course, has not just been voted prettiest campus, best tailgate and most gorgeous student body, it also has been a fixture on the annual top ten list of party schools, where it currently ranks number five.

"While it’s frustrating it’s not scientifically based. I don’t put a lot of stock in it. I don’t worry too much about it at the same time, says Dr. Larry Ridgeway.

Larry Ridgeway is UM’s vice chancellor for student affairs. After University Police Officer Robert Langley was killed in a hit-and-run incident involving a drunken student in October of 2006, the university revamped its approach to alcoholism. Part of that is a two-strikes policy and mandatory alcohol education for all incoming students. Data for alcohol-related incidents on campus and the percentage of students on probation now show a clear improvement for the last three years. But the problem persists.

Of course, Ole Miss is not alone. Each year, nationwide approximately 5,000 youngsters under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking.

“Any institution that’s dealing with 18 to 22-year olds in higher education is going to have some challenges when it comes to the use and abuse of alcohol. We are no exception," says Ridgeway.

But the university is an exception when it comes to dealing with the problem. For a year now, the UM counseling center has run a recovery community to provide emotional and practical support to students. Amy Fisher, the university’s substance abuse services coordinator, intervenes on the students’ behalf on a wide range of issues.

“A lot of times, people who are in recovery are battling against lower GPAs, an ability to get financial aid, maybe they defaulted on loans. Also the social aspect of life as a college student can be very difficult to navigate," Fisher explains.

Such a recovery program places Ole Miss in a group of national trailblazers. Currently, the Ole Miss recovery community encompasses just four students. Twenty-six-year-old marketing senior Amber Henson is one of them:

 "When people ask, 'why don’t you drink?' I say, 'because I can’t.' ‘Why don’t you go to the bars?’ 'Because I can’t. Because I will be standing there ordering a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.' Or, really, not on the rocks.  But, you know, I’ll be standing ordering the Jack Daniel’s there and 25 Jack Daniel’s later they’ll take me home and I’ll be passed out somewhere.” 

Now sober for 16 months, Henson had been suspended for a semester after her grades dipped sharply due to heavy drinking:

You know, elementary, junior high, high school I was a straight “A” student. I never would have guessed that I would have been dismissed from college," Henson says.”

The group meets once a week but counselor Amy Fisher is just a phone call away and in daily e-mail contact. To Amber, that closeness to Amy has given her the strength to stay away from Oxford’s many opportunities to drink:

“I know that if tomorrow I went out and drank and came in this office and said, ‘Amy, I had a drink.’ She would still love me, but it’s the fact that I disappointed her," Henson explains. "Thinking in my head that I disappointed her and, you know, not just her [but] many, many people around me.”

Counselor Fisher says part of her job is making sure her students overcome feelings of inadequacy and start dreaming big again.

“I’m so excited about this entire collegiate recovery community movement that’s kind of sweeping the nation, because I think that every person, every addict in recovery needs to know that they are not throw away people.”

Henson for her part has found a definite goal: she hopes to work for an addiction treatment facility after graduation next year. Her road towards a degree proved rockier than she had anticipated but now she’s confident she’ll make it.

“I certainly could have never done this by myself," Hensons says. "Thankfully there were, you know… God found it fit to put the people in my life that I needed right then.”

Meanwhile, interest at other colleges is high. Already, the University of Southern Mississippi is working on a similar program. Alcoholism on campus won’t go away any time soon, so tackling the problem head-on might just be the smarter option.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.



Amber Henson, a marketing senior at the University of Mississippi, has been sober for 16 months now.



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