SUNY New Paltz is one of 20 state and city universities in New York awarded a grant this past May to help combat alcohol and substance abuse among college students. The university will receive $625,000 over a five-year period through the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). Some of the $125,000 to be received annually will be used for an awareness campaign and to provide new training for faculty and staff. But most of the funding, specifically targeted to help students 18 to 24 years of age, has been put toward creating the new position of college prevention coordinator, whose primary purpose is to liaise with campus and town community members to develop strategies on reducing substance abuse.
The position was filled in September by Jaclyn Cirello. The New Jersey native has a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Montclair State University and five years of experience doing clinical work at an outpatient rehabilitation center. Prior to that, during a two-year stint with Americorps after earning her undergrad degree, she worked with at-risk youth at a group home in Louisiana. The experience there was what inspired her, she says, to pursue a graduate degree in mental health counseling and to focus on alcohol and substance abuse.
Cirello’s first hurdle as prevention coordinator is to determine the best course of action. “We’re in a ‘needs-assessment’ stage at this point,” she says, adding that the OASAS grant was set up with the understanding that each campus has different needs regarding substance abuse services. The grant is designed to be flexible, so that strategies can be adjusted along the way if called for.
A student survey will be part of the process of gathering information. But Cirello is most enthusiastic about organizing a campus/community coalition, to collaborate with local residents, business owners and organizations on developing strategies to reduce student substance abuse enhanced by the knowledge and resources available within the town and village.
A first meeting of some 15 people affiliated with the college has already occurred, with the next meeting slated for January, when Cirello hopes to have members of the New Paltz community signing on as well.
SUNY New Paltz already has a longstanding relationship with local business owners, expressed in the 1999 Tavern Owners Agreement that encourages responsible alcohol consumption and appropriate civic behavior by college students. There’s a relationship with groups like the Greater New Paltz Community Partnership, which takes a proactive role in redirecting young people at risk for drug and alcohol abuse, and the campus counseling center does currently offer substance abuse intervention services. But the OASAS funding and Cirello’s appointment represent an opportunity for the college to expand and concentrate its efforts.
According to SUNY New Paltz Director of Student Development, Michelle Combs, “It’s a unique group we’re trying to create. The local business owners have been great to work with over the years, and they’re always open to listening to us. But there hasn’t been anything specifically coming from us, pulling people in to talk about our students and our community. None of the existing organizations focus specifically on the college and substance abuse. We’re really excited to have Jackie here organizing this; she’s a dedicated person and great to work with.”
Cirello’s youthful energy and engaging manner seem a good fit for working with college students. In her clinical experience, she worked with adolescents as young as age ten up through adulthood; and in working with youth, she also worked with their parents, she points out.
Cirello was already familiar with the New Paltz area from years of coming up from Northern New Jersey with her boyfriend to visit the area, and says they’re happy about becoming a part of the community here.
Once the results of the needs-assessment are available, she will begin the process of leading a campus and community-wide effort to develop education, prevention and intervention strategies to reduce overall drug and alcohol use at SUNY New Paltz while also emphasizing individualized care.
“Our strategies can’t be one-size-fits-all,” she says. “You have to be flexible in working with students and meet them where they’re at.”
The OASAS grant received by SUNY New Paltz was also awarded to the state universities at Binghamton, Buffalo, Albany, Farmingdale, Cortland, Purchase and Geneseo; Stony Brook University; College of Staten Island; College at Brockport; Herkimer, John Jay, Baruch and Lehman colleges; The City College of New York; and Tompkins Cortland, Suffolk and Onondaga community colleges.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the grant awards totaling $2.6 million in a press release on May 1. “College is a formative time in young people’s lives and it is critical that we provide our students with the necessary tools to avoid making bad decisions with potentially life-altering consequences. Through campaigns aimed at combatting drug use and underage drinking, we can help set students on the right path by creating a campus environment that fosters education, awareness and growth for all.”
Cirello says she’s received “really great support” so far from both the campus and community. “The ultimate goal is for the students to be happy and healthy; that’s the way I approach this.” And while the course of action taken will be determined through the needs-assessment process, she says, “I hope we can help lift the stigma of alcohol and substance abuse and have a real conversation about it. Working in this field, I’ve found that there is a lot of stigma around someone abusing alcohol and other substances. It’s hard to talk about it and ask for help, but we want people who have an issue to come forward so they can get the necessary resources to help them.”
Community members interested in becoming involved with the campus/community coalition may contact Jaclyn Cirello at email@example.com.