Renovations Increase Opportunities for Students in Substance-Free Housing

A gift from alumnus Hank Azaria improves community spaces at the newly named Simpson House

During her first year at Tufts, Genevieve and the three dozen or so other residents of her dorm were planning a mountain getaway as a community-building experience.

Then COVID hit. The pandemic put the kibosh on their getaway, but, says Genevieve–now a senior at Tufts–there already was a strong sense of community among her fellow residents, which persisted even without the trip to the mountains. The reason, according to Genevieve? She lived in Wilson House, one of two substance-free student housing options on campus.

“Living in Wilson House shaped my experiences at Tufts,” she says. “I knew coming in that I wanted substance-free living, and I think a lot of us as first-years had an easier time transitioning into college life as a result of living there. We all had a big lifestyle choice in common, and that made things easier.”

Hank Azaria at Tufts University's 160th Commencement

The Simpson House renovations have been made possible by the philanthropy of alumnus Hank Azaria, shown here delivering the commencement address at Tufts University's Commencement in 2016. Photo: Alonso Nichols

For five years, Wilson House was the only substance-free dorm on campus. Then, two years ago, another option opened up: currently known as Carpenter House, this more recent substance-free housing option will soon be renamed Simpson House, in recognition of a gift from Emmy-Award-winning comedian Hank Azaria, A85, H16. In addition to his lead roles in numerous feature films and title roles in television sitcoms and dramas over his career, Azaria is well known for voicing multiple characters on the animated television series The Simpsons.

Of his decision to support the renovations with his philanthropy, Azaria said that he wanted to provide an opportunity for fellowship among students who choose to live on campus substance- and alcohol-free. “The students’ bonding over a shared lifestyle has been its own reward and has led to lasting relationships much like I had in the drama department when I attended Tufts,” he said.

Azaria’s gift makes possible attractive renovations of the building’s public spaces—renovations that, according to Director of Residential Life and Learning Christina Alch, will enable more programming for students who have chosen a substance-free lifestyle. Another key renovation: the construction of an outdoor patio, which offers an appealing public space for students to get together and study outdoors or enjoy social gatherings.

“Having a number of ways to socialize without substances can enhance solidarity among a group of students who make decisions about substance use that feel counter to the typical college experience.” 

Laura Michelson, an alcohol and drug specialist at Tufts

“That patio will give us a cool space in an interesting part of campus,” Alch notes. “It will increase the dorm’s presence on campus, allowing for the substance-free environment to be carried outside of the walls of the house and have greater continuity with the rest of campus.”

In addition to the outdoor patio, improvements to an existing backyard space—such as the installment of cornhole and other game equipment—will allow students more ways to take substance-free socializing outdoors.

Combating the Stigma of Recovery

The benefits of creating greater visibility for substance-free living on campus could extend even to students who don’t live in substance-free housing, says Laura Michelson, an alcohol and drug specialist at the university. “Students overestimate how much their peers are drinking, and their overestimation can inform their own consumption.” Seeing that there is a community of students on campus who value substance-free living could send an important message, she adds.

In addition to the importance of extending substance-free living beyond the walls of the two dorms, Michelson says it’s important to have a range of spaces available to increase programming opportunities for students in the community—a range made possible by the renovated Simpson House. “Having a number of ways to socialize without substances can enhance solidarity among a group of students who make decisions about substance use that feel counter to the typical college experience,” says Michelson.

She adds that some students who live in substance-free housing are in recovery, and, in part because of stigmatization, it has been difficult to grow the numbers of the student-led recovery support group. There can be a reluctance among students to single themselves out as individuals in recovery and in need of a supportive community.

“By creating spaces for students who identify as not using substances and providing more chances for them to socialize and connect over topics beyond just substance use, we can establish a kind of commonality that will help combat the stigma of recovery,” she says.

To that end, Michelson—with the help of Genevieve, whose summer project was to contribute to new programming efforts for Wilson and Simpson houses—has put together plans for the new school year. “We hope to have an event each month to bring the community together,” she says.

Genevieve points out that in addition to the events that will take place in the new Simpson House spaces, one event might be the mountain getaway that Wilson House was trying to organize several years ago. Whatever form the programming ultimately takes, Genevieve is excited to have a hand in shaping it.

“This work is meaningful for me,” she says. “It draws on my own experiences. I want to help create community for other people who are choosing not to use substances.”

A double-major in community health and psychology, Genevieve can even imagine herself carrying the work she’s doing now into her future career. “I’d like to do work that involves students and recovery,” she says. “It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time.”

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