Learning Spaces


“The roots of education are bitter, the fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle

How could a 15-year-old girl be considered a threat to the Taliban? On October 9, 2012, in the Swat valley of northwestern Pakistan, a gunman stepped onto a bus in which Malala Yousafzai was returning home from school and shot her in the head. Not because of religious, ethnic or social differences; but because she was an outspoken advocate for education. At just 11 years of age she had spoken out against the Taliban edict forbidding girls to be educated. She gave a talk entitled, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” She continued going to school and speaking out despite death threats to her and her family. The Taliban intended to silence her. The shooting had the opposite effect.

Malala not only survived, she finished school and, now globally known, continues to push for education. She published a book, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. In 2012, just 17 years old, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, later telling Ellen Degeneres, “Education helps you to get an identity.” For most people in the western world, school is a normal part of life, something we take for granted. “But in other parts of the world,” Malala told Diane Sawyer and ABC News, “we are starving for education. It’s like a precious gift.”

ForSomeoneWhoSpentWe may have lost sight of that preciousness in our culture with free public schools, mandatory attendance and an almost infinite choice of colleges, trade and technical schools. In today’s competitive global market, college students hope to increase their odds of finding meaningful work. At the same time, the academic and social challenges and pressures can override sound judgment as evidenced by legendary campus partying, binge drinking and recreational drug use. For the student who is in recovery, walking into that college atmosphere can be like stepping into a minefield.

The academic community has been paving safer paths through those minefields for over 50 years. Some 130 schools – Rutgers, Brown University, Texas Tech and Augsburg College in Minnesota, to name just a few – have successful programs committed to helping students in recovery.

Augsburg’s StepUP program, established in 1997, has gained a national reputation and is often used as a model. To be clear, it is not a recovery program; the focus is to help students already in recovery navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of campus life by providing dedicated sober housing, licensed counselors and alcohol-free social events at no additional cost to the student.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote: “Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to the light.” Those words could describe the arduous climb out of addiction to recovery. For someone who spent many dark years in the grip of addiction, finally sitting sober in a college classroom can indeed feel like having come a “long way out of hell.”

Hilda Arnorsdottir “had no plans for life after age 30.” Childhood social anxiety with selective mutism (she spoke only to her family and two close friends) increased at age 12 when her family moved from the U.S. back to her home country of Iceland. There she found kids her age “in a big rush to grow up.” Not wanting to be left behind, she accepted a vodka drink at a birthday party and for the first time she felt relaxed, “There was no stone in my stomach.” Soon she was drinking “as much as I could whenever I could.” Eventually she was also ingesting street drugs and prescription medications.

As years went by, blackouts became frequent. At one point, she lived in her pajamas, not eating or sleeping and paying a neighbor to pick up her liquor. A series of sexually exploitive relationships fueled her low self-esteem and she began cutting (medically viewed as non-suicidal self-injury to cope with emotional pain). Travelling with her family, she found ways to sneak drinks. The relentless self-destructive pattern continued until age 29 when, in a substance-induced “superwoman moment” Hilda threw herself down a flight of stairs. The ER doctor seemed “pissed off; he prescribed ibuprofen and threw me out.” It was then, she says, she “had this moment: I wanted to live.”

She called her mother and within weeks was scheduled for treatment at Hazelden. But the addiction wasn’t quite ready to let go. Hilda drank at her going away party in Iceland and on the plane to Minnesota. By the time she arrived at Hazelden, her kidneys were starting to shut down. After three months of treatment at Hazelden, Hilda lived in a halfway house where she learned of Augsburg’s StepUP program. She wanted to go to college but was pretty sure that at age 30 she “had missed that bus. I was too old, would not know what to do and too late in my life to live in a dorm.” Yet in the fall of 2014, she began classes at Augsburg College and says, “If it wasn’t for the StepUP program, I would never have applied.”

To be sure, she has struggled. Attending class and socializing bring up old anxieties. She has relapsed, had to drop some classes. With a spunky tenacity, she sorts through it all and is still at Augsburg. A self-described “history nerd” she now gets high on soccer, basketball and her dog whose unconditional love, she affirms, “gives me meaning.” Prior to recovery, she had been to Mexico and India and although she drank during those trips, she says the experiences forced her out of her comfort zone and boosted her self-confidence. Her plans for the future are uncertain; but she thinks she’d like to live in Mexico or Italy and do “fulfilling, rewarding work” that helps people.

When Hilda was leaving for Hazelden, her father gave her Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning” which, she insists, “should be obligatory reading.” A favorite quote by Frankl is, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” For someone who previously couldn’t see beyond age 30, having hope for a future is tremendous growth.

Bob L. (full name withheld at his request) remembers that in high school it was easy to “make friends through drugs.” While sober he “didn’t know how to meet new people.” An only child, he witnessed four family members recover from addiction to live “happy, sober, fulfilled lives and [show me] there was a better way.”

Bob, now 22, found that “better way” and celebrates two years of sobriety in July 2016. His story might well have gone differently. He started drinking at age 13, by 14 was smoking marijuana and by 16, he says, “I was high all the time.” His life was a steady flow of alcohol, recreational, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, blackouts, stealing medications and money, shoplifting, and selling liquor purchased with a fake ID. He was arrested three times, once spending a night in jail.

He admits he had “great parents; they treated me well.” It wasn’t enough. One time he ditched his cell phone so his parents wouldn’t be able to track him while he disappeared for two days of partying. When he finally arrived home, he found his dad sitting in a chair staring at the driveway; he had not gone to work for those two days.

Bob tried recovery twice at the insistence of his parents. After the first monthlong program, he was sober and attended AA meetings for several months while denying his addiction: “I’m just a kid doing what all teenagers do. I really believed what I was doing was normal.” He went back to using.

After a second residency program with older people, many recovering from heroin, he rationalized, “I’m too young to have a drug problem and I don’t do heroin so, no, I’m not an addict.” Almost wistfully he says, “You can convince yourself of anything.”

When his parents gave him an ultimatum – stop using or leave – he moved to Utah to live with the family of a girl he knew; he was kicked out when they discovered he was stealing the girl’s ADHD medication. Each time he wore out a welcome, he moved on: a different school, another state, a new family, back to his own family, an apartment with an older man who was a “severe alcoholic and didn’t care what I did.” Charging thousands of dollars on his mother’s credit card, he threw wild parties in a fancy hotel room. Moving on to meth and heroin, when cash ran out, he called his parents and lied about needing money for food.

Remarkably, he managed to maintain high enough grades and test scores to be accepted at Southern Methodist University on partial scholarship. It was a “complete disaster.” Drugs were readily available; he stopped attending classes and stayed in his dorm room getting high. Rather than have “fails” on his school record, he took a “medical leave of absence.” Upon returning home he immediately went to party with old friends. He woke up in a basement: “No memory, money gone, drugs gone, all my stuff stolen.”

Something clicked. “I realized I was killing myself. I was 20 years old and not ready to die. I didn’t want my parents to have to bury their only child.”

Within a week he was in residential treatment again. “I learned a lot; I was open to taking advice rather than thinking I knew it all.” Now majoring in computer science and mathematics since spring 2015, he finds Augsburg a good fit with less party life and a “respect for sobriety.” The StepUP program “keeps us sober; help is available when we struggle.” His “high” now comes from writing computer programs and seeing them work. He spends time in nature and maintains a spiritual life through prayer and meditation. And he tells his story at treatment centers. “It reminds me of where I was and helps alleviate shame and guilt.”

Of family members who overcame addiction and have since died, he says, “They helped a lot of people throughout their lives. This inspires me to want to lead a similar life so that when my time comes…I can be at peace as well and know that I have made a difference.”

While college is important to them, Bob and Hilda clearly exemplify that education happens far beyond the classroom. As Viktor Frankl suggests, those tiny spaces between stimulus and response that open to us countless times very day give us all of us opportunities to learn, to grow, and, as Malala Yousafzai says, to shape our identity.

Last Updated on July 23, 2016