Student’s Recovery Story Steers Peers On Sober Track

Jennifer Curt battled alcoholism and depression on her way to a sober life. Now as an advocate with the peer-to-peer Students for Recovery, she’s helping others cope with their own struggles.

Jennifer Curt (Photo: Logan Werlinger)
Jennifer Curt (Photo: Logan Werlinger)
February 09, 2017

By John DiConsiglio

Some days, Columbian College senior Jennifer Curt felt as if she could barely check her phone without finding a text or email from another student looking for help. It could be a student with a drinking problem who hadn’t touched a beer all semester but felt the familiar temptations as her dormmates prepared for a night of partying. Or maybe it was a student coping with the drowsy side effects of depression medication that had him sleeping through classes. At times during Curt’s four years at GW, the messages seemed to keep coming. Students dealing with a variety of personal issues—eating disorders, anxiety, self-harm—all looking for someone to talk to. And Curt understood—because she had been there herself.

“I see myself in a mentorship role,” says Curt, who has been in recovery from battles with alcoholism and an eating disorder for five years. “I try to make myself available if only to say, ‘I can relate. I’ve felt that way too.’”

Curt, a five-year student simultaneously working toward her BA in women’s studies and her master’s in public policy, has left her mark on campus and on a host of students’ lives. As a past president of Students for Recovery (SFR), the first student-run recovery group in D.C., she’s been a tireless advocate of peer-to-peer support for those living with substance use and mental health issues.

In her role at SFR, Curt was among the student leaders who spearheaded the establishment of Recovery Day, an annual on-campus gathering of experts, legislators and advocates to strategize university and legislative support. She also helped found the Serenity Shack, a 22nd Street townhouse that serves as a meeting spot and safe space for recovering students. And she aligned the group with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, working closely with alumna Jacqueline Hackett, BA ’08, MPP ’10, who was deputy director of the policy group under the Obama administration. With Hackett, Curt worked on several projects, including a Facebook live interview that reached 43,000 viewers.

“Jenny is warm, professional and very impressive, the kind of student that makes you proud to have a GW diploma,” Hackett said.

Still, Curt’s most profound achievement may simply be picking up the phone when a fellow student in crisis calls. “Recovery has enabled me to achieve a lot of things,” she said, “ but at the end of the day what matters most is having an impact on people’s live.”

Sobriety, School and Social Life

Curt was a star student at her New Canaan, Conn., high school, with a 4.0 grade point average and a mantle lined with sports trophies. “My story doesn’t align with the typical image of an alcoholic,” she said. “My family was normal. My parents never worried about me. I was a great kid.”

But alone in her room at night, Curt felt overwhelmed and depressed. An eating disorder steadily grew into a drinking problem and self-harm cutting. After a suicide attempt and a bipolar disorder diagnosis, Curt and her parents sought help. “The fact that I got into recovery was a small miracle. I was so young, I had so many opportunities to keep doing what I was doing,” she said.

Starting college sober presented its own challenges, including a separation from her support group and the temptations of life away from the home environment. “A college campus can be a recovery-hostile environment,” Curt said. “It is a difficult place to be sober and substance free.”

In fact, according to a recent Columbia University study, almost half of full-time college students binge drink or abuse prescription drugs, and almost a quarter of those students meet the medical definition of having a problem with substance abuse or a dependence—three times the rate of the general population. Meanwhile, one in three college students report feeling so depressed they find it difficult to function, notes the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment.

Curt committed herself to a sober college experience, fully expecting to sacrifice friendships and traditional student events. But after attending her first SFR meeting in 2013, the prospect of living a richer college life opened up to her. SFR provides peer-to-peer support, offering students an additional resource beyond the professional counseling and treatment provided by the Colonial Health Center. Curt said SFR “bridged the gap” between juggling sobriety and schoolwork without feeling isolated from other students. She soon threw herself into SFR volunteerism, organizing events and eventually serving as president.

“Jenny took the principles she learned in recovery and applied them to academics, her professional career and to all her personal relationships she formed at and away from GW,” said SFR founder Timothy Rabolt, BA ’15. “She understands self-care, but also goes above and beyond to help others out—whether they're in recovery or not.”

Curt intends to continue her work in recovery after graduating. She is already exploring strategies to form a nonprofit that advocates for sober student housing in the D.C. area. “I want to help these students get to a place where they really love themselves, where they feel stable and feel like they can do anything they want with their lives—in school and after graduation,” she said. “Recovery has shown me that I have so much to pursue. That’s what I want to share with them.”