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Transformative Signature Courses: Young People & Drugs

This is part one of a series on transformative Signature Courses.

Addiction can be a taboo-filled subject, especially on a college campus. The Signature Course “Young People & Drugs” attempts to remove stigma and provide insight on the complexities of addiction. This challenge led the instructor to develop a unique model, one that seeks to engage a large swath of campus in tackling a tough problem.

Part of the core curriculum required for all degrees, Signature Courses like “Young People & Drugs” connect first-year students with top faculty in challenging, interdisciplinary courses. Course instructor Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker began teaching at UT in 2000 and has taught “Young People & Drugs” as a Signature Course every year since the program began.

“Ideas come from diversity,” Dr. Holleran Steiker said. “Even in talking with students participating in the Freshman Research Initiative, for example, they say that courses in art have helped them approach their hypotheses when designing a lab experiment.”

Bringing Real-world Experience to the Classroom

Dr. Holleran Steiker served as an addictions therapist for about 12 years before becoming a scholar-researcher, and she brings that experience to the course material. She invites peers and colleagues into the class to discuss their work, brings students in recovery from addiction to her class to share their personal stories, and backs it all up with current literature on youth and addiction.

“What I tend to do is braid together personal, professional, and research components into the course,” said Dr. Holleran Steiker. “I have sort of three lives that way. I don’t think any professor comes to a class without bringing their life experience. I think that what students like the most is that I come saying, ‘Here’s my experience, here’s other people’s experience, here’s what clients experience‚Ķ Experience, experience, experience!’”

Along with her position as an associate professor in the School of Social Work, Dr. Holleran Steiker is the faculty chair of the Signature Course Advisory Committee and was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 2012.

Transforming a Seminar into a Lecture

Offered since 2005 as an elective in the School of Social Work, “Young People & Drugs” became a small 18-student Signature Course in 2008. It was recently expanded to accommodate 102 students for the spring semester of 2013.

“When the First-Year Experience people asked about expanding the course, I thought, ‘Hmmm this course is about relationships, honest sharing, and introspection. It really is made to be a seminar,’” Dr. Holleran Steiker said. She notes that one of the keys to translating the “very introspective” seminar class to a large lecture hall has been utilizing the skills of her Teaching Assistants, like Julie McElrath Ray, who received weekly training and support from staff in the Sanger Learning Center (SLC).

To successfully expand to a lecture-style class, Dr. Holleran Steiker decided she would need at least nine peer mentors, students who have already taken the course and succeeded, to help. In the first large lecture in the spring of 2013, over 20 students expressed interest in becoming peer mentors. With so many willing participants, she decided to broaden the role of the peer mentors outside the classroom by using the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA) model started by Ryan Travia at Harvard University. DAPAs are students who can respond to their peers’ questions about drugs and alcohol and “reduce stigma and increase awareness,” according to Dr. Holleran Steiker.

“I proposed this to [School of Undergraduate Studies] Dean Iverson and Chris Brownson, Associate VP for Student Affairs, and Chris talked to people in University Health Services," Dr. Holleran Steiker said. “Before we knew it, it was approved as a vital piece of the continuum of services for drug and alcohol issues on campus.”

With grant funding from the School of Undergraduate Studies, the DAPAs have already hosted a few events around campus like a sober tailgate and the screening of a film dedicated to reducing the stigma related to addiction recovery. The group is also working to schedule events with authors who have written books on the subject of addiction.

Written by: 
Trent Lesikar