“It hits every age group, every creed, color, income level,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf told a small crowd in July. Wolf had appeared in Western Pennsylvania to announce a new online certificate dedicated to addressing the state’s opioid crisis.

“It affects neighborhoods and communities and families all across Pennsylvania, all regions,” he continued. “And it has been incredibly damaging. In 2015, we know that 3,500 Pennsylvanians died from drug overdoses.”

A month later, in August, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study that confirmed what many had long feared. Not only had states like Pennsylvania, Indiana and Louisiana underreported deaths caused by heroin or prescription-strength opioids like fentanyl, these states also had vastly underestimated the sizes of their public health crises. 

According to the new calculations, Pennsylvania, previously ranked 32nd in the nation for opioid deaths in 2014, should, in fact, have ranked seventh. Reported deaths from the Pennsylvania Drug Enforcement Agency for 2016 indicate that the crisis has since only increased.

As the state unrolls its multimillion-dollar plan to prevent addiction-related deaths, more than 700 public and private treatment centers across Pennsylvania attend to the lives of addicts in recovery. Former addicts — no matter what their drug of choice — require a range of therapies to stay on the path to wellness, from cognitive behavioral treatment that counters addictive impulses to group and family therapy.

Recovering from any form of addictive behavior isn’t easy, said David Rotenberg, the chief clinical officer of Caron Treatment Centers in Wernersville, Pa. But because of access to drugs and alcohol, as well as social pressure to participate in activities where drugs and alcohol might be present, college students who want to stay sober face additional challenges.

“About 70 percent of kids that come to Caron — young adults and seniors in high school — are college-bound, or are already in college and have taken a medical leave of absence for treatment,” Rotenberg explained. “How do they safely resume studies, yet remain insulated in a sober living environment?”

For Rotenberg, the answer is straightforward: more online education options for students in treatment. Through a strategic partnership with nearby anchor institution Alvernia University, former Caron patients can participate in online courses at their own pace.

“The curriculum that Alvernia developed allowed us to start putting kids back in class without putting them in harm’s way,” said Rotenberg. “In a year’s time, we’ve been able to enroll upwards of 15 students. They’re completing college credits, making academic strides and becoming that much closer to proactive, prosocial members of society.”

Success in online learning environments builds the self-esteem of students in recovery, said Rotenberg. The hope is this success will ready them to return to traditional college campuses and pursue degrees that might have been abandoned because of addiction.

To this end, Alvernia University opened a sober living dormitory over the summer, staffed by a live-in house manager, who is also a joint Caron and Alvernia employee. The concept of campus recovery housing — or “sober dorms” — is about 15 years old and was pioneered by Augsburg College (Minnesota) and Rutgers University (New Jersey). Inspired by these models, the Collegiate Recovery House at Alvernia is now a dedicated living space for seven young men who have finished treatment and wish to live in a sober college environment. 

These students attend weekly meetings at Caron Treatment Center, keep curfew and host community-building events like family dinners, said Joseph Cicala, Ph.D., vice president for University Life and dean of students at Alvernia.

“In a higher education environment, culture is what drives the good work we do,” Cicala said. “The building and sustaining of community is what makes higher education go, and the Collegiate Recovery House is a microcosm of the impact a positive, supportive, well-structured community can have on student learning.”

The communal aspect of recovery housing is one of the most important components to staying sober, confirmed Rotenberg.

“Instead of being lonely and isolated in your recovery, all of a sudden you’re surrounded by peers who have recovery as an identity,” Rotenberg said. “The peers support and insulate each other, and become friends and allow each other to grow within a sober identity.”

He also pointed out that students in recovery housing often have higher GPAs than traditional students, simply because they have such a strong support system.

Family members are invited to become active members of this support system, too. Counselor David Rosenker, who consults for Alvernia, as well as other area colleges and universities, said family support is crucial to sobriety.

“If college-aged students don’t have family support, their chances of making it are pretty slim,” Rosenker said. “You need a family that not only supports treatment but that learns about — and is active in helping with — the process.”

Even at this early stage, both Caron and Alvernia are committed to the new program’s continued success, Cicala affirmed.

“We want the people who enroll in this program — almost all of whom are here for a second, if not third, fresh start — to do two things. One, successfully earn the degrees they come here to earn, and two, leave here ethical leaders with moral courage,” said Cicala, citing the university’s mission.

“It’s our hope that programs like this can be modeled at other higher education institutions and help recovering addicts across the state and the country to forge brighter futures.”