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Been There Done That aims to help UND students going through drug recovery

Former Miss USA Tara Conner speaks about her recovery from drugs and alcohol at Ember Coffeehouse in downtown Grand Forks Thursday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
A gathering of people at the Ember Coffeehouse listen as former Miss USA Tara Conner describes her experiences with drugs and alcohol Thursday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

There are students at UND who are studying while also living a life of recovery from substance abuse.

And those students don't have to feel alone on campus, one group says. Been There Done That Students for Recovery wants to give support to those students and bring awareness to their journies.

Part of that includes holding events and hosting speakers. The group, which meets at 3 p.m. every Friday at the UND Counseling Center, sponsored a talk Thursday at The Ember in Grand Forks with Miss USA 2006 Tara Conner.

Conner speaks nationally as an advocate for recovery and prevention of substance abuse. On Thursday, she opened up about her life of substance abuse, her journey to recovery and her success as Miss USA.

Conner thinks prevention and speaking about addiction should be brought up early and often, including on college campuses.

"Every college campus should have a recovery program," she said.

Addiction to alcohol and other drugs impacts more than 85 million Americans, according to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, and 21 percent of people ages 18-21 meet the criteria for substance-abuse disorders. With about 15,000 students attending UND, it's likely students on campus have been affected by substance abuse, the group said.

"People think recovery, and they think it's the student who's barely getting by with C's," said Nate Espinoza, a member of Been There Done That. "And that's not true. We're A, B students. We're engineering students, aviation students, all sorts of students."

Establishing a student organization

Been There Done That has existed at UND since the early 2000s as a support group, but this semester, it's grown into a student organization, thanks to members like Espinoza.

"We're not going to meet behind closed doors," he said. "We have just as much value and self-worth as any person at this university."

To do that, Espinoza said the group is modeled after a national movement of collegiate recovery communities through the ARHE.

"The model is no student should have to choose between education and their recovery, or choose their addiction or education," said Tom Solem, addiction counselor at the UND Counseling Center. "Give them a platform to embrace the environment they're in, support recovery and live a lifestyle substance-free."

Many members said they didn't know there were other students going through recovery until they joined Been There Done That Students for Recovery.

Espinoza said he came to UND with alcohol and substance abuse issues. After three semesters, he realized it wasn't working out, and he was academically expelled.

Later in his recovery, he returned to UND to study social work with a focus on chemical dependency.

"When I first came back from recovery, I felt like I was alone," Espinoza said. "I felt like I was the only student in recovery at UND. One semester in this organization, I've found a dozen other people. You know you're not alone. We're here, and we're with you."

Getting the college experience

The group provides a network of friends for members who don't drink or use drugs. A favorite hangout for some members is The Ember. Espinoza said they like to go there on the weekends to drink coffee, play chess and hang out.

Aside from Ember, the group goes to see movies on weekends, and it is planning a ski trip and an ice skating outing to Ralph Engelstad Arena this winter.

Part of the group's mission is to show that students in recovery can have the normal college experience.

Jim Murphy, assistant director of alcohol and drug services at the UND Counseling Center who helped create Been There Done That in its early stages, said he's excited for the group to grow.

"I'm glad they're learning to take a risk," Murphy said. "Sixty years ago at a party on the weekend, if you're heavily intoxicated, people will ask you what's wrong. Now, if you go sober, people will ask you what's wrong."

Espinoza acknowledged that "alcohol is embedded in our college culture," but said students can still have the college experience without drinking.

Expansion and growth

The group is open for support of those affected by all addictions and substance abuses. While drugs like fentanyl are prominent in the Grand Forks area, members are confident that students who have suffered any type of substance-abuse addiction will find support in the group.

"We can relate to each other, no matter what we've been through, because we all have anxiety of learning how to live sober again," said Andrew Huot, a member of Been There Done That.

And it's not just for people who have had problems with drugs, but also others who may have been affected by family or friends or just want to help others.

The group hopes to spread its name around campus and the city. It hopes to hold a large event on campus and invite all students to learn about its mission. Members want to raise funds to allow the group to establish a designated space and resources for its members.

Espinoza said the group is also beginning to work with UND housing directors to create sober housing options on campus.

"We want to make people aware of what recovery is," he said. "It is a disease. There is a life after that. A life of recovery is a life of success, joy and community."

Becky Jacobs

Becky Jacobs is the crime and courts reporter for the Herald.

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