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Stigma-Free Support

Educating students about addiction empowers them—and us all

Two-and-a-half years ago, I began my journey at Swarthmore as the College’s alcohol and other-drug (AOD) counselor and educator. But my real journey began in 2005—when I started my recovery from the devastating disease of substance abuse.

I learned the cost of repeated drug use the hard way. When I sought help, I followed standard advice, but I quickly learned there’s no cookie-cutter treatment for addiction. Instead, a customized action plan, reviewed and altered annually, aided my recovery—and inspired my philosophy in supporting students’ health and wellness.

My goal at Swarthmore is to fill in the blanks: Where there’s a gap in substance-abuse information or support, I want to address it. But I also celebrate diversity by seeing each student as an individual and each journey as unique, and I use that approach to develop campus programming and support systems.

One successful offering has been at new student orientation, where I highlight topics such as alcohol and drug influences in popular children’s movies and how stress or other mental health issues intersect with drug use. 

Last fall, with the help of committed resident advisers, I launched evening programs in our dorms, where I present on the specific needs of those student communities. Sometimes the focus is on party safety, whereas a substance-free floor may prefer self-care strategies. In the past year, I have met countless students through these small groups, where they’ve felt comfortable enough to open up to me and their peers. 

I’ve also launched a lecture series covering the diverse spectrum of lifestyles, potential influences, and cultural relations of drug and alcohol use. Our most popular lecture event, “AOD & Athletic Performance”—for which Swarthmore’s athletics department has been a great advocate—explores how even moderate alcohol and other-drug use can affect someone’s progress or recovery time. 

Another successful session has been “The 420 Experience,” a discussion about the truths of cannabis. The program has received a lot of buzz, not least because we offer “special brownies” (made with love, not drugs). Besides these now-annual offerings, I also promote new programs as students’ needs change, and I plan to advocate for additional safe-drinking spaces and substance-free activities. 

In my road from recovery to discovery, I became increasingly conscious of my values, influences, boundaries, and repetitive lessons of my past. But most important, I maintained an appreciation for those who found serenity in ways that differed from mine. No two paths toward recovery are the same; by offering a range of support services, I hope to guide all students compassionately and carefully. 

Through these campus programs—and the relationships developed because of them—there’s been a sharp increase in the number of students choosing to meet with me individually: One in three come on their own volition. These confidential spaces offer the opportunity to accept each student for who they are, how they are, and where they are on their journey. Supporting a student’s ability to open up about their concerns or problems is crucial to their success. I never forget that, because I know firsthand how hard it can be to look in the mirror, ask a question, or reach out for help.

Ultimately, that’s what I find most inspiring about Swarthmore: that community members are given the agency to journey into a healthy future, however that is defined. With humor and heart, I’m as committed to helping others as I am to my own recovery, and my door is always open. 


JOSHUA ELLOW is Swarthmore’s alcohol and other-drug counselor and educator.