USD’s addiction studies program, the only nationally-accredited program of its kind in the state, has perfect passing rates.
Over the last two years, students in the program have had a pass rate of 100 percent. Nationally, the pass rate for addiction studies is 82 percent, said Frank Zavadil, the department chair.
Addiction studies focuses on understanding and treating any type of addiction people face – including alcohol, drug, sex, tobacco and gambling addictions.
Zavadil said a huge part of the program’s success is the rigorous training students get, which they can apply to tests.
“Our students, before they take the exam, usually have some actual experience working in the field,” he said. “They can actually see the application work and when they actually take the test, it asks application questions so they can apply that information.”
Because of the havoc that is wreaked upon the lives of those suffering from addiction, Zavadil said the personal experiences people have helps students better understand addiction.
“(Students) have that passion to work with others,” he said. “They know the trauma and experiences people go through with addiction. They are trying to be a source for those people who lost it.”
Assistant professor John Korkow attributed the students’ early and frequent hands-on experience to the high pass rate.
“Our students have their first contact with the clients that are out there in their sophomore year,” Korkow said.
Senior Montanna Huitema is majoring in addiction studies. She said in an email that she shadowed at the Glory House in Sioux Falls during her sophomore year.
“Getting to sit in on a couple group classes made me realize that I was in the right major,” she said. “Job shadowing really shows you what you will be doing in the future, so I enjoyed it.”
Many individuals facing addiction also have some form of mental illness. This requires students to understand both addiction and mental illnesses in order to better help patients, Korkow said.
“At least half of the (addiction) clients co-occur with (mental illness),” Korkow said.
Mental illness is a key component in many cases of addiction, said assistant professor Mary Merrigan.
“Students come in because they have histories with that or histories in their family with it,” Merrigan said.
Huitema said she has a personal connection to addiction.
“My dad was in therapy for PTSD after two deployments in Iraq that caused him to have an addiction,” she said.
Even if students don’t major in addiction studies, Merrigan says it’s important for people to understand addiction and the afflictions that come with it.
“We want people to recognize when someone’s in trouble and get them the help they need,” she said. “That’s a huge part of why people might take our classes who aren’t major or minor.”
The path to recovery can be hard for some, but Merrigan says it’s a satisfying experience to help people overcome addiction.
“It’s so rewarding to see someone in the throes of addiction and help them towards health again,” she said.
Addiction studies isn’t as well-known on campus as faculty would like it to be. Korkow said a big reason more people aren’t aware of the program is the roots they have in 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. Because of the misconceptions surrounding addiction, some people don’t take it seriously.
“We’re an academic, evidence-based, rigorous field of study,” Korkow said. “That’s why we have the pass rate. It’s so rigorous, it’s so intense. We teach the whole gamut of addiction. We teach mental health and addiction. There’s a misperception that we’re still in our roots. But they’re 70 years out of date.”
Zavadil wants those who aren’t interested in an addiction studies major to consider taking a class in the program, as the classes can help people understand addiction.
“Even if people aren’t interested in the degree of education, some of the classes are really helpful for people to take to have for their own future,” he said. “More than likely, they’re going to encounter someone with addiction problems or issues. And having that knowledge, at least they’ll understand that person better and won’t discriminate against them or be ignorant of what causes addiction. It’s not a moral thing, it’s a disease.”