We’re honored to feature a guest blog from Jarmichael Harris, MS, LCAS. He currently serves as East Carolina University’s collegiate recovery community coordinator and an alcohol and other drug staff counselor for the center for counseling and student development. Jarmichael is an advocate for the expansion of recovery support resources for underrepresented populations, both regionally and nationally.

I am often asked: “How did you get involved in collegiate recovery?” It’s a question I typically respond to in a matter of a few sentences or so, but here is the long version. 

Most individuals I know in recovery support services are in recovery themselves, or have a very close and personal connection. That’s not my story, though I am not exempt from the fact that we all know someone in active addiction or thriving in recovery. My pathway into recovery support services was birthed out of a love for mentorship and ushering in the next generation of leaders. 

Growing up, I had a love for all things science, outdoors and sports. From the fifth grade I knew that I wanted to be a medical professional, specifically an orthopedic surgeon. My ultimate goal: work on the staff of an NFL team as their team doctor or an assistant to the doctor (I still have the ECU COAD 1000 paper to prove it). However, life comes at you fast and you have to learn to adapt and “live life on life’s terms.” For me, this meant losing my father to cancer 10 years ago. Honestly, this is where I started to evaluate my own life and make a few decisions I knew would be life-altering. 

I reevaluated my goals, took an inventory of my life decisions over the past years (mainly the problematic first year of college), and made a decision to put myself and my family in the best position possible for our futures. I was, in fact, the older son/brother of our family, and in my eyes, now the “man of the house,” even if I was three hours away at college. For me the answer was finishing this degree as quickly and painlessly as possible and reevaluating again when I was on solid ground. 

In 2010 — my last year of undergraduate studies, and an internship away from graduating — I approached my professor and said I needed an internship placement that would be challenging. The book of internship placements I had previously looked at gave the names of agencies and contact names, but very little description of the environment or populations we may work with, so I selected three area nursing homes. After working three years in a nursing home as a certified nurse assistant and several years as an activities volunteer at the same home, I knew there was very little any of these placements would teach me that I was not already familiar with. My professor graciously asked me what it was I was looking for, to which I replied: “I like working with kids, middle school- and high school-age kids. I’ve done community service here in town with after school programs and I really enjoyed it.” The professor gave me the contact information of PORT Human Services, a provider in Greenville that offers inpatient treatment for high school-age students. 

That internship experience was everything I could have asked for! It challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before. I had to learn to connect with these students in ways that I had never had to connect with any other young people. I learned very quickly that kids (and all people) in active addiction have a very unique way of dealing with others and building trust. I know that I was by no means the perfect counselor-in-training at that time, but I certainly built a foundation to lean on throughout the years. I enjoyed the internship so much that I applied for a job opening at the treatment center and remained there for over five years! 

It was in 2013 that I realized that pursuing a master’s degree was inevitable. I returned to ECU and began the Substance Use and Clinical Counseling program, all while working full time at PHS. In the spring of 2014, I was introduced to the Anonymous People documentary. I was in tears by the end of it. The documentary only showed about 20-30 minutes of recovery support services for high school and college students, and it highlighted this need for effective supports to help young people sustain their recovery. Working in the treatment sector at the time, I had built relationships with some students at PHS that we met at age 13, 15 and again at 17. It was directly related to the lack of support these students had when they left treatment and returned to their home environments. I didn’t know how it would be done, but I was fully onboard with helping to start a collegiate recovery community at ECU. Our state already had two successful programs at UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington. I thought that surely ECU would be a perfect place to establish another. 

For me, as I said earlier: life comes at you fast and you have to learn to adapt and live life on life’s terms. Everyone, no matter if you identify as being in recovery or otherwise, will have a spell of bad luck, unfortunate circumstances, or just find themselves in a rut that they can see themselves out of. I am one of those people. Nearly failing out of college and not knowing my next move was a difficult challenge. Growing up, I was a high-achieving student, even when I did not apply myself most of the time. At ECU, I found myself with my back against the wall, but I also found people who genuinely cared about my success as a student and a person. I had multiple people I could reach out to and they helped me find my way. ECU is my home away from home and 10 years ago, I needed that support more than ever. 

I am an ally for recovery and an advocate for recovery support services on college campuses because I understand the pressures of having the weight of the world on your shoulders and feeling like no one is going to understand what you are going through. I understand, from being inside the walls of a treatment facility, how a young person can have a game plan for success, but return to an unsupportive environment and end up back at square one. On the flipside, I have seen first-hand that students in recovery, whether they chose to go to treatment or not, can find the tools they need in their support network of other young people in recovery and allies who have a genuine desire to see others succeed.