People trash-talked over corn hole, dined on barbeque and beans, and two in-service veterans waved a giant red, white and blue UCF flag. A recent football tailgate party at UCF was a huge celebration. The only thing missing: alcohol.
As part of National Recovery Month, UCF campus organizations – Sober Knights, the Student Veterans of America chapter, and SALUTE Veterans Honor Society – recently teamed up to hold a sober tailgating party at the on-campus Veterans Academic Resource Center. Students hoped the event encouraged people to talk more openly about recovery to reduce stigma and increase understanding.
Rebecca Benton is a student counselor at UCF’s Student Health Services. She’s a petite woman, so no one believes she’s a veteran. Her husband is a former combat Marine. Their son is earning his degree at UCF and is a leader in the university’s veterans and recovery efforts.
She, like others, knows first-hand the misconceptions people have about veterans and people in recovery: Veterans are big, tough, mean. They never show their feelings.They’re all suffering from PTSD. People who abuse alcohol and drugs are weak.They don’t have any willpower. They’re irresponsible.
“We need to talk about this more, so we don’t judge, so we break down barriers,” Benton said. “We need to think about recovery more. We need to talk about it more. Recovery needs to be part of every day.”
Medical experts estimate that at least 10% of the population is suffering from substance abuse – addiction to alcohol and/or drugs. That means that with an enrollment of about 68,000, UCF likely has almost 7,000 students who are struggling with alcohol or drugs or are in recovery. The goal of events like Sober Tailgating is to provide students with an alcohol-free event and raise awareness that not every student is able to spend their weekends “partying.”
“When it comes to a lot of activities on campus, people don’t think about people who are in recovery, people who don’t or can’t do alcohol,” said junior Ryan Calderon, vice president of UCF Sober Knights. “Our message is that you can have a great, fun experience without drinking. It sounds crazy, but it works.”
Understanding was a key issue raised by student veterans Juan Landaverde and John Glenny, who lead UCF’s Student Veterans of America. Landaverde spent eight years in the Army and was deployed three times. Glenny served overseas and in the U.S. as a combat medic. They explain that student veterans are different from young undergraduates who just left home for the first time. Veterans are adult learners with intense life experiences. The military has taught them focus, toughness, discipline and self-care. While they may come across as unapproachable, veterans say they are eager to share their experience and to learn from other younger students who are, as Landaverde says, better at “navigating the whole college thing.”
“In the military, you become family,” says Glenny. “And when you leave the military, you’re without that family and that can make connecting hard. So our goal is to help veterans find a community here. To show them it’s okay to be in college at your age. This is your place in time. And we want to share our experience. Because we’re all the same people – we’re just living in a different world.”
Orlando resident and NFL Super Bowl champion Fred Stokes joined the tailgating. The former defensive end for the LA/St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins, and New Orleans Saints autographed footballs, showed his Super Bowl ring, and talked about dispelling the notion that college has to be all about drinking. “You get to college, and it’s on,” he said of partying. “But I can have a great time, I can enjoy a party and not have any regrets – about what I said, what I did, where I ended up…”
While sober events help students in recovery, they also help students seeking a different type of college experience, recovery leaders said.
“Universities may find if they offer alternative activities, sober-curious students will find their way and change the narrative that drinking is central to having a good time,” said Thomas Hall, ‘16, PhD, the Sober Knights advisor who is leaving UCF to become director of Orange County’s Drug-Free Coalition.
The key to raising awareness is openness, veterans and recovery leaders say. Openness to learning about people who have experiences different from your own. Openness to talking about and addressing stigma and misconceptions. Openness to asking questions without judgment. Openness to the fact that everyone is battling something and that together we are stronger to fight whatever issues we may have.
Luis Delgado is The Dope Doctor, a certified addictions professional and UCF alum who hosts The Coach Life radio show on recovery. He’s been sober for more than 25 years. His foundation, N.O.W. Matters More, helps people get into recovery, including providing scholarships to those who are underinsured or have limited benefits. Delgado aired his radio show live from UCF’s sober tailgating event and talked about how everyone plays a role in recovery.
“Recovery is possible,” he said. “We need to be open about that because we’re all in this together. We are your sons, your daughters, your fathers, your friends.”