Augsburg University’s StepUP Program Marks 25 Years

Photo courtesy of Nell Hurley / Augsburg University

This year marks the 25th anniversary of StepUP, Augsburg University’s Collegiate Recovery Program.

Twenty-five years ago, it was 1997. It was a remarkable time in many ways. That year, became registered as a domain name, Princess Diana died, a gallon of gas was $1.22, Bill Clinton was President, and StepUP, one of the nation’s oldest and largest Collegiate Recovery Programs, was born.

A lot has changed since then, but one thing that hasn’t changed is StepUP’s commitment to supporting students in recovery. After launching in 1997 in response to Augsburg alum Toby LaBelle’s vision of creating a recovery program on campus, StepUP has ranked high in what makes Minnesota’s recovery community so special. By the time LaBelle started attending Augsburg in 1993, he was already rooted in recovery, but it wasn’t always easy.  Recognizing the amount of drinking and partying that goes on and that binge drinking is normalized for college students, StepUP’s co-founders wanted to normalize recovery on campus too. LaBelle enlisted his friend Dave Hadden to help realize his vision and with the support of the University and faculty member Don Warren, StepUP began as one of the nation’s first formal Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRP). Back then there were only a handful of CRPs: Brown University (started in 1977), Rutgers (1983), Texas Tech (1996), and Augsburg (1997) were it. LaBelle, Hadden, and Warren, and the program’s first director, Patrice Salmeri, had no idea then the impact that StepUp would have over the course of these last 25 years. “We just knew we wanted to support young people. We didn’t want anyone to have to choose between recovery and a college education,” said Salmeri.

Today, over 700 students have graduated from StepUP. Students like Jake S., who transferred to StepUP from Trinity University in San Antonio after struggling with substances during his first two years of college. After going to treatment following his sophomore year and then spending some time in sober living in Portland, Maine, Jake wanted to return to school. “I didn’t see going back to Trinity as an option. I knew I needed to be in a place that could really support me in my recovery,” he said. Jake found StepUP through the Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s website and it was one of the only programs he could find that offered a residential component.

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Coming to StepUP was the right choice for Jake. “The counselors here at StepUP have been incredibly supportive. I’ve really enjoyed living with other StepUP students in the sober dorms because they’ve been able to hold me accountable. It’s such a tight knit community and we have tons of fun events where we’ve been able to get to know everyone. I can’t imagine a better place to help me stay sober and be a successful student at the same time.”

Jake is expected to graduate from StepUP this spring, earning a B.S. in Augsburg University. He plans to start working towards a PhD in clinical psychology in the fall.

More than a sober dorm

It’s been said that connection is the opposite of addiction.In the last decade or more, most colleges and universities have acknowledged the prevalence and danger of drinking and other substance use on their campuses, and some have started their own collegiate recovery programs. Today, there are approximately 150 Collegiate Recovery Programs across the nearly 4,000 post-secondary institutions in the United States. But the need is huge. According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 1 million full-time college students met the criteria for alcohol use disorder alone in 2019. The impact of the pandemic, legalization of marijuana, and the use of opioids among young adults inflates that number significantly.

In 2007, Augsburg built the Oren Gateway Center, a multi-use facility that includes a four-story residence wing of loft/condo-style units that houses StepUP students. “StepUP is so much more than a sober dorm,” said Jon Stentz, one of StepUP’s Licensed Alcohol and Drug counselors (LADC). Even though StepUP’s residential component sets it apart from other Collegiate Recovery Programs as one of the only programs that includes its own residence hall, Stentz points out that “it’s the connection and the community that students find here that makes all the difference. It’s been said that connection is the opposite of addiction. The StepUP connection is where the magic is. Our students support each other and hold each other accountable. They’re all in this together, both the college journey and the recovery journey.”

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Beyond the built-in peer support that the StepUP residence hall breeds, StepUP offers a robust program of support and accountability that includes clinical support, random drug testing, weekly meetings, recovery service opportunities, and optional but regular social outings like rock climbing, camping trips, game nights, and the like.

So, while some things have changed a lot since 1997, like no longer having to disconnect from the internet so your sibling can make a phone call, Augsburg University’s StepUP program still leads the way in collegiate recovery. They don’t call us Minnesober for nothing.

Nell Hurley serves as the Recruitment and Outreach Coordinator for Augsburg University’s StepUP program. StepUP strives to help students champion lives of recovery, achieve academic success, and thrive in a community of accountability and support. For more information about StepUP including how to apply and financial aid, please contact Nell Hurley at 651-261-6965 or

Last Updated on November 11, 2022

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