MARLBORO — A professor and several students are looking at addiction differently after taking the subject on as a part of a new program.

"Get in the van often. Get in the van and see what's going on in the world," said Meg Mott, professor of politics and gender studies who designed the "Speech Matters" program. "That's my takeaway."

The Marlboro College program is described by Mott as a non- degree, semester-long intensive learning experience that gets students to discuss issues that matter. Addiction was the focus of the most recent semester. Other issues will be explored going forward.

Assistant program director Tommy Arsenault said "Speech Matters" deals with an issue that is currently unfolding. He learned about how addiction is "intimately tied together" with poverty and racism. He sees the program as an opportunity for students to reach other people.

"We're not learning about things that happened hundreds of years ago," Arsenault said. "New information about addiction is coming into the public attention on a daily basis. A lot of the ideas that the students in this program have been generating are fairly new ideas to a discourse entirely, which is exciting. To think the work we're doing could affect a field, that's not always possible or it would require a lot more time or work in other fields."


A marijuana legalization hearing at the Statehouse was attended by students in the program. They also went to a rally where addiction was addressed in Washington, D.C.

The class is currently putting together opinion pieces to be published. Other media has already been produced in relation to the topic of addiction.

Students also got Naloxone on campus. The drug blocks or reverses the effects of opiate overdoses.

"That's a pretty great material change that's come out of the program," said Arsenault.

Jon Persio, a student of philosophy and politic theory, was drawn to "Speech Matters" after studying prisons and the way crime is talked about.

"You can't really talk about the prison system in the country without talking about the drug war and addiction," he said.

When these issues are explained for the complicated matters they are, Persio said there are more opportunities to address them in an appropriate way. He believes this can be done by giving people more space in conversation or by being more tolerant in general.

Persio noticed the harm created by sending someone to prison for drug use while studying the harm reduction model, which looks at strategies and ideas to reduce negative consequences associated with drug use.

Students attended a hearing on the legalization of marijuana in Montpelier.
Students attended a hearing on the legalization of marijuana in Montpelier. (Photo courtesy of Marlboro College)

"You're putting more harm into the community rather than trying to alleviate the harms that are recurring," he said before calling to mind another student's presentation. "When you look at how many childhood traumatic events individuals have gone through on a wide population level, basically we all might have one or two."

A person's chance at becoming addicted to a substance dramatically increases when the amount of traumatic events increases to four or five, Persio told the Reformer.

Sophia Naylor said she struggled to find a rhythm during her first year at Marlboro College last year. She felt as though all the classes she was taking had nothing to do with each other.

"That was very frustrating for me. Because I felt like how am I going to use this knowledge down the road?" said Naylor, whose advisor Mott mentioned she was starting the "Speech Matters" program. "Originally, it wasn't that we were studying addiction that drew me to the program. It was that I would be studying one topic in a few different classes for the full semester so i really liked that."

Another part of the reasoning behind the choice was Naylor's coming from a small Massachusetts town that is experiencing a heroin epidemic.

Ariana Rodrigues-Juarve's interest in the subject matter brought her to "Speech Matters." She came from Hartford, Conn.

"It's a rather poor city and the education there is really bad. And there's giant issues there with substances," she said. "I was really interested in how it's all connected and how I could bring it back to my own life and my own motivation for making change around me."

Stigmatization is keeping people from getting the assistance they need, according to Rodrigues-Juarve.

"We can't talk about it," she said. "If we can't talk about it then we can't know anything about it."

Rodrigues-Juarve called going to a needle exchange program in New York City "probably one of the most amazing parts" of a trip in which the class also attended an open forum on alternatives to public injections. This made her think about how people needed to be helped.

"Because at the end of the day, nothing else matters except for how it is impacting people," she said.

Opportunities to debrief and reflect throughout the semester, Mott said, helped with creating a sense of community. The program provided her with a unique teaching experience.

"Yes, we had our objectives," she said. "But this other piece was learning how to work together and create an atmosphere. It wasn't winners or losers. It was go team. There was an element of care there that I don't always see."