Student Leaders of the Washingtonian Society (from left to right: Graham Pergande, Daniel Rhoades, Alex Cantrell, and Anton Lishvin)
A Washington and Lee, an organization exists for students seeking recovery from issues relating to alcohol and substance use. In addition, this group offers sober social activities, a sober home, and peer support for all its members. This impactful and growing organization is the Washingtonian Society. When students walk into the Washingtonian house, despite all differences, they bond and develop friendships over the common goal of seeking and maintaining recovery.
While the general health and counseling resources on campus address issues regarding alcohol and substance use, an addiction and substance abuse focused resource did not exist on campus until 2008. Dr. Luder, a psychiatrist from the W&L Counseling Center, began initiatives to build a collegiate recovery program and peer support group open to all students. Initially in 2012, the group held informal weekly meetings “secretly off campus once a week” to protect the student’s anonymity. Only four to ten students regularly attended meetings. Then, in 2015, Dr. Luder applied for the what is now known as the Transforming Youth Recovery Grant and officially founded a collegiate recovery program at W&L named the Washingtonian Society which then expanded in number and moved into the Elrod Commons Sacred Space. While the progress was momentous, the group remained secretive for anonymity and confidentiality.
Shortly after, a group of members moved into a residential recovery house, nicknamed “the Washingtonian House,” where students could live in a sober space and hold Washingtonian meetings. The members felt they were in “a real home” where they could hang out, study, find comfort and security, and continue to build friendships.
In the Spring of 2018, the members decided to gain EC recognition and funding, and the Washingtonian Society swiftly transformed into a public resource. The group embraced over twenty more students. Some students joined because of medical or legal requirements whereas other students joined, inspired by their peers to improve unhealthy relationships with their substances of choice. Each member began discovering or carrying out their process of change, which could involve harm-reduction practices or sobriety, in the weekly meetings.
Even now, the weekly meetings establish a confidential and judgment-free zone where members informally share and discuss their goals, events of their week, mental health, alcohol and substance use, and other matters on their mind. In response after listening, students can ask permission and then offer feedback to suggest changes and express empathy. Alex Cantrell, graduating senior and resident of the Washingtonian House, recalls how “to be able to share, to be able to give advice on things that had happened to me was an amazing feeling of almost euphoria.” The euphoria results from the fulfilling feeling of connection, growth, and vulnerability of sharing and providing feedback with others. Thus, the weekly meetings provide the most meaningful interactions between members as they give each other the support and knowledge needed to successfully achieve their personal goals. Daniel Rhoades, a Peer Recovery Support Specialist, conveys the attitude during the weekly meetings and the importance of connections and support:
I sit down and do what I can to help another student or person feel safe enough to talk about what’s going on with them and let them know they are not alone in their struggle. It’s okay to say they get high all the time, it’s okay to say they don’t want to live on a regular basis, it’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to feel these feelings. It’s okay to do whatever and remember they are not alone.
At the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, the Washingtonian Society planned to spread word of their community because of its vital role to its members. Dr. Luder, Anton Lishvin, Danial Rhoades, Alex Cantrell, and Graham Pergande, the leaders of the group, advocated their collegiate recovery program to the Greek organizations, Peer Counselors, Residential Life, the Student Affairs Committee, the Board of Trustees, 24, Athletic Coaches, and Student Health Committee. The Washingtonian leaders promoted their residence and group to as many W&L students they could reach. Alex Cantrell explained most students will not have issues with substance use, but the house and group are here for those who need it. The Washingtonian Society estimates 20-30% of W&L students are likely to experience issues relating to alcohol and substance use indicating the importance of their Outreach program.
Accordingly, the number of Washingtonian members doubled in one year; in the Winter Term of 2019, forty students were members. In addition, meeting attendance tripled according to the organization. The increase in attendance and membership is a testament to the success of this community promoting connection, authenticity, and change found nowhere else on campus.
In recognition of their leadership and efforts to provide meaningful support, friendships, and changes to the campus community, W&L named the Washingtonian Society the Best Student Organization of the Year. Soon after, the group held a Celebration of Recovery during the 2019 Alumni Weekend at the Washingtonian house. Several students gave their testimonies of recovery and credited the Washingtonian culture and community with helping initiate profound change in their lives. At the weekly meetings, Dr. Luder witnesses “the kind of embrace of each other these students have and the expressions of love and support and whole-hearted acceptance, and they cheer each other on [...] They are really genuine with each other in a way that is remarkably healing.” The recovery residence and peer support group have proven to be fundamental in each person’s path to recovery and improvement in drinking and substance use behaviors. Emilia Musgrove, a first-year at W&L, explains the group is her “circle of security,” and the circle is safe, stable, open, and accepting to all those who walk through the door.
This exceptional community consists of genuine and meaningful friendships where everyone can rely on each other concerning alcohol and substance abuse, dependence, recovery, and relapse. Daniel Rhoades describes the quality of his friendships formed within the peer support group: “On a regular basis, I have other people telling me they love me. To have that level of vulnerability and presence and passion to be together in our fight and struggle. I don’t know how to describe it.” The relationships are deep, supportive, and exist in and out of the group meetings.
At the Celebration of Recovery, members voice gratitude for the roles their peers and the house have played in their recovery. Alex Cantrell accredits “the one biggest factor that led to a period of recovery, rather than sobriety, this past year and a half was the Washingtonian Society.” Early during his recovery, he limited his time going to parties, but he “[goes] out fairly often now but sober and has more fun than [he] ever had before…” Cantrell thanks the group for empowering him to reach this stage in his recovery as it would not be possible without the house and group.
Emilia Musgrove shares a similar concept, “the biggest life altering decision for me has been to come a Washingtonian meeting […] The house, these people, have changed my life for the better…” In terms of her recovery, she recognizes that she continues to deal with the same problems, but the Washingtonian Society has reshaped how she manages and perceives her life into something healthier and more sustainable. Her experience with the group enables her to take on a leadership role and live in the Washingtonian house next year.
For Anton Lishvin, another central student leader of the Washingtonian Society and Active Minds, his personal path of recovery entailed sobriety because he was not able use without abusing. He conveys his addiction by illuminating how marijuana “was my best friend, my wife, my pillow at night…it was everything.” He reached a year sober the day before the Celebration of Recovery event, and he discloses he “never would have thought in a million years [he] would scrap up 24 hours sober nonetheless a year sober.” He attributes the sober residence, Dr. Luder, the peer support groups, and his close Washingtonian friends for helping him on his path of recovery. He has used his experiences to support and help other members like Emilia and myself.
Dr. Luder and the current Washingtonian members have high hopes for the group’s growth and its future impact on W&L’s campus. They will continue to share their home, community, and knowledge in the hope that more students will recognize and utilize the Washingtonian Society as a solution to problems regarding alcohol and substance use. With Anton, Daniel, Emilia, and Alex, the Washingtonian Society has given them more meaning, fulfillment, mindfulness, and friends, and they intend to encompass the transcending benefits of W&L’s only collegiate recovery program to the entire campus.
To close in the spirit of the Washingtonian Preamble:
We promise our help and trust to each other. We are traveling together from who we are to who we want to be. When the path of recovery is hard, remember friends are here, and know that our love and friendship help illuminate the way.
This group is not just for people who are committed to complete sobriety. It’s an open meeting for anyone trying to make positive changes in their lives regarding alcohol and substances. We welcome everyone no matter where they are in their process of change and know that living healthy lives regarding alcohol and substances is different for different people.
A message from the Washingtonian Society: For those committed to complete sobriety or want some resources as you reevaluate your relationship with alcohol and/or other substances, stop by at the social support group meeting every Friday at 5pm at the Washingtonian House (19 University Place, near the Financial Aid Office and VMI). This meeting is confidential and open to any student. No commitment to complete sobriety is required. Food and La Croix are always provided.
There is also a sober support group meeting every Wednesday at 5pm at the house. This meeting is for any student committed to complete sobriety from alcohol and/or other substances.
Are you reevaluating your relationship or need help with alcohol/substance use?
The Washingtonian Society helps students:
Who recognize a pattern of problematic use and want to change
With disciplinary or legal consequences of alcohol or substance use.
With substance-use related academic problems
Who have had interpersonal difficulties related to alcohol
With depression, anxiety, and other medical issues exacerbated by alcohol or substance use
Who have gone through treatment and need help/support to maintain sobriety
Contact Dr. Kirk Luder, firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.