From the parking lot outside the building that houses the learning center for the aptly named Sober College, the building looks like all of the other office buildings in West Hills, suburban L.A. But as soon as we met Annika Richards, a very outgoing young woman and the Marketing Director for Sober College, we were fairly sure what we were about to see would be something quite different from what was going on in all those other buildings.
Sober College works with young adults ages 17-26 in need of a supportive, sober environment supplemented by substance abuse treatment. Their curriculum builds competencies in five areas of achievement: Sobriety, Life Skills, Career Development and/or Education, Emotional Well-Being and Fitness. Students must commit to at least 3 months in the program but 12 months would be more typical. The program, opened in the fall of 2005, currently has 42 students.
Sobriety is first and foremost at Sober College. Many of the staff are in recovery and understand the issues these young adults face firsthand. Sober College embraces a 12-Step approach but believes that to maintain sobriety successfully, the other four competencies are a must. Sober College would like to have a hundred or more students enrolled and be accredited in its own right - but that's some years down the road.
After greeting Robert Pfeifer, founder of the program, we were ushered into the main classroom in the learning center to talk with Michael Cahlin, academic director, who is a freelance writer and educator. In his words, "If you can imagine a college that acts like a treatment program or a treatment program that acts like a college, that would be Sober College." Pfeifer describes the program as "an emotional growth college." Cahlin is in recovery and brings his past with him as a teaching aid and Pfeifer has many years of experience with young adults - especially those dealing with substance abuse.
Whether students need to finish high school, complete a GED, start or resume college work, all start with courses in the learning center under Cahlin's watchful eye. The four walls in this bright, pleasant room are covered with lists created by the students with titles like: 25 Signs Your Child Is Using; The Top 10 Signs; and Where Young Adults Hide Their Drugs. Cahlin has turned these three into A Toolbox for Parents - now part of every information packet Sober College sends out.
But the lists don't stop there. Some of the more poignant lists - hard for a parent to read - had titles like I Knew I Was Really Hooked When…and Rock Bottom For Me Was…and I Still Didn't Stop Even After… From hands-on classes in the learning center - classes like Preparing for Exams, Getting the Most Out of Your Relationship With Your Professor and Application and Resume Secrets, students move into distance learning from the center or enroll in local and state community colleges.
For some, work rather than school may become their focus at Sober College. The program has created job opportunities that are overseen and supported by staff and workplace mentors to get them started in the workforce. As they progress, program participants can transition into other employment and career opportunities.
To see how the other three areas of achievement (life skills, emotional well-being and fitness) are addressed, we took a road trip to visit the men's and women's homes. Both are beautiful, classic Southern California houses where young adults share in household responsibilities like cooking and cleaning. Each house has a live-in house manager and someone is available for support 24-7.
The living environment affords each student the opportunity to put newly-learned life skills (from classes at the learning center or from on-line learning tools) into action. Each house has an outdoor smoking area but smoking cessation programs are offered for those who want to quit. Based on their successes in the house, students eventually move into nearby apartments for even more independent living.
The entire household often participates in a variety of activities from community-based 12-Step programs to visits to the fitness center or going to the movies or the mall. With an emphasis on the need for learning to have sober fun coupled with the need for physical fitness, there are a wide range of outdoor activities including hiking, kayaking, biking and even surfing.
Fitness at Sober College includes physical and mental fitness. Using the idea that overcoming fear has a lot to do with sobriety, the program embraces high adventure activities like surfing and skydiving to achieve both. There are also opportunities for students to benefit from more traditional work with mental health professionals if needed.
At the men's house, they were finishing dinner and getting ready to head out to the gym. We had a few minutes to talk to a few residents and their house manager - a man who says he was born for his job. He was quite impressive - briefly sharing his own story with us and letting us know why he loves what he is doing.
The women's house sits high on a hill with a spectacular view of the city. It was nearly dark and the lights were incredible. Sober College is proud of the fact that they have worked hard to create a program for women that allows program participants to both set boundaries and push their limits. The women were getting ready to attend a group meeting where they would be processing a topic like body image or father-daughter relationships as well as talking about how the day had gone for each of them.
Emotional well-being is a vital competency at Sober College and they have taken the work of Daniel Goleman from Harvard seriously. Having program participants work toward a high emotional IQ is important because of the way empathy, self-understanding, emotional self-control and healthy relationships help students remain clean and sober and move forward in the other aspects of their lives.
We ended the visit over dinner with several staff members - the founder, marketing director, admissions director and the new clinical director. They were an impressive group, all knowledgeable, well-seasoned, and highly skilled. It was easy to see from their demeanor that young adults at Sober College would like them - and listen to them as well. The most palpable feeling we were left with had to do with their passion for their work and for these young people. It was a great visit.