Student Spotlight with Robert Ashford

WHERE THE WEST BEGINS: Born in Fort Worth, Texas, but raised in Mountain Top, Pa., Robert Ashford is a graduate student in the School of Social Policy & Practice pursuing a Master of Social Work degree. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Texas, where he majored in social work and minored in psychology and addiction studies.

PERSONAL HISTORY: Since his undergraduate days, Ashford has been studying substance use, mental health disorders, and recovery among college students. His interest was spurred by his personal experience as a person in long-term recovery since May 7, 2013. While working in corporate broadcasting, he developed an alcohol use disorder and co-occurring mental health concern, and entered treatment. “Through the process of initiating my own recovery, I realized that I wanted to go back to school and get involved in the behavioral health recovery field,” he says.

COLLEGIATE RECOVERY: At North Texas, Ashford was the founding director of the university’s collegiate recovery program. The organization started as a student group in 2013 and by 2015, it was institutionalized with dedicated space, funding, and staff. Ashford has established a similar community at Penn called Quaker Peer Recovery, a student-run, peer-to-peer group for any undergraduate or graduate student who is in or seeking recovery from a behavioral health concern. Launched in January of 2016, the program holds two recovery meetings each week—one in the LGBT Center on Mondays and another in the ARCH on Thursdays—open to students in recovery, students concerned that they may have a substance use or mental health concern, students in long-term recovery, and recovery allies.

SUBSTANCE-FREE FUN: Quaker Peer Recovery also hosts prosocial events offering students fun activities away from bars and parties, such as glow-in-the-dark Frisbee and recovery movie nights, and presents substance-free networking events. “The ultimate goal, even if it takes years, is that there is a recovery resource drop-in center on campus where students in recovery, wanting recovery, or wanting more information can easily find it and have a safe place to go,” Ashford says.

MAYORAL TASK FORCE: Ashford, who plans on pursuing a Ph.D. after he graduates in May, is interested in macro-social work, or systems-level social work, trying to initiate meaningful change at the systems rather than individual level. Fittingly, in December, Mayor Jim Kenney appointed him to serve on the Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic. Ashford is one of the 20 members on the data analysis and sharing subcommittee, which is looking at the ways the City of Philadelphia tracks the opioid crisis. The Task Force began meeting in January and will prepare a report for the mayor by the end of April. “The U.S., per capita, gives out more opioid prescriptions than anywhere else in the world, which drives a lot of this,” Ashford says.