By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Neil Hurta admits he was mediocre at everything he did in his life, except getting drunk or high. At that, he was the best.
Hurta took his first shot of Wild Turkey with his father at the age of seven. By the time he was ready to hit the doors at Clifton Middle School in northwest Houston, he was already known in the neighborhood for his violent outbursts. He never enrolled. At Northwest Academy, Hurta was known as the school druggie who spent a lot of his time in the principal's office. Even though Hurta went out for four sports, he never tried hard to excel at the Baptist school. He was shunned by classmates he labels "weekday Christians," the ones who would call Hurta on the weekends to score weed.
"I never felt a part of anything in my whole life. I felt like I was on the outside looking in, and through my drinking and drugs I found people I thought would accept me," says Hurta, now 22. "I used my attitude and my rage and my drinking and drugging to isolate me from anybody who might care about me."
Upon his less-than-illustrious graduation in 1996, Hurta picked Texas Tech University in Lubbock because it was as far as he could get from his Northwest Academy classmates and still get in-state tuition rates. Hurta took the alcohol and the cocaine with him, and it took him to the edge almost immediately. On his first night in the dorm, Hurta met up with some new friends, went out and got bombed.
"I was written up for coming back to the dorm intoxicated, and I was proud of it," Hurta says. "I found a group of guys that liked to drink and liked to party, and I could always out-drink them. I was the life of the party. There were a lot of times when I would be up for days drinking and they had to come over and baby-sit me for fear I would get out of hand and go looking for a fight."
Hurta's habits led him down a predictable spiral of escalating alcohol and cocaine abuse: the night he drank so hard at the Merle Haggard concert that he blacked out and his friends thought he was dead; the fight that left Hurta's hand broken and gave him a good excuse to stay at the dorm for days icing down his wrist and a glass of Wild Turkey; the evening Hurta totaled his truck and shrugged it off; the abysmal grades that were about to get him kicked out of school.
And that might have been the end of Neil Hurta's career in higher education -- as it has been for so many students like him before and since. But he was lucky. He had a girlfriend named Kristen, a Texas Tech professor called Carl Andersen -- and a special program known as "Seminar in Recovery."
Texas Tech is the only university in the country that offers scholarships to recovering addicts such as Hurta, regardless of grade point average. Hurta didn't know it when Kristen took him to his first 12-step recovery meeting at the Center for the Study of Addiction -- he thought it was some kind of cinema class -- but he was about to be put on the road back to sanity. It would take another three-day binge during Easter 1998, and the death of his alcoholic grandfather, before Hurta would get serious about getting straight.
"I went up and got the desire chip, and I said something like, 'I don't think I'm an alcoholic. I might have a small drinking problem,' and a guy I knew who was there stood up and said, 'You are an alcoholic. You wrecked your damn truck,' " Hurta says. "I know I was embarrassed at the time, but I didn't really think it was a big life moment."
Hurta is one of 36 Tech students on a scholarship from the university's addiction center. Providing financial assistance to students who have repeatedly -- and sometimes unrepentantly -- wrecked their college careers was not something that drew widespread support from Tech administrators when the privately funded scholarships were instituted in 1988. At the time, the university president said he didn't want "those kind of people at Texas Tech," professor Andersen says. Parents questioned why students with the very worst behavior were being rewarded.
"Initially we had a lot of flak from people," Andersen says. "For the last five or six years, though, we haven't had any flak at all, and the main reason has been that the results have been so dramatic for the students."
About 600 scholarship students have earned degrees or related certificates from Tech under the program. Individual grants have endowed the program with $1 million. There also was funding from the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, until grants for adult programs were cut four years ago.
This year the center will award $64,500 in scholarships, based in part on grade point averages. Grants range from $500 for a 2.5 GPA to $1,500 for a 3.5. To cover the higher tuition costs for non-Texas residents, out-of-state students receive up to $2,000.