Skid Row Scholars

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.

The program is applauded by Robert Sheridan, director of scholarships and financial aid at the University of Houston's main campus. He says he would jump at the chance to have a scholarship devoted to recovering alcoholics and addicts.

"If you were in a position to take a recovering alcoholic who had been waylaid in the past and was now dry and sober and ready to come back to school, why wouldn't you?" Sheridan says. "You could assist them and give them financial support and possibly give them some motivation to stay clean and sober. I could absolutely see us doing something like that."

It would make as much sense as other college scholarships, Sheridan points out. Last year UH handed out almost $12 million in scholarships to 2,300 students. Many of those scholarships were based on personal merit, financial need or academic standing. Others Sheridan has seen in his 30-year career as a financial aid counselor at both UH and in Ohio have been far more idiosyncratic.

Houston newspapers annually run ads on an obscure scholarship that can go only to the children of former workers for oil magnate Sid Richardson. Sheridan remembers a scholarship intended for twins attending the same Ohio university, as well as a decades-old scholarship at another Ohio college that would go only to someone of Romanian descent who promised to write a research paper on Romanian history or culture.

"In my three or four years at that university, the big thing wasn't awarding that scholarship," Sheridan says. "It was trying to find an applicant for that scholarship."

Anderson had his own reasons for seeking to endow the alcoholic scholarship. The former all-American basketball player from Sweetwater, Texas, was a Methodist minister for almost ten years before he took his first drink.

"I was an instant alcoholic," Andersen says. "Within 30 days of my first drink, I was a daily drinker. Within three months, I think any test I would have taken would have pegged me as an alcoholic."

Andersen forced himself to step down from the pulpit, but it would be several years before he would get sober. Andersen says he was, like many, a functioning alcoholic. He drank his way through two master's degrees and a Ph.D. at Tech, while graduating with honors. As a professor of family studies at Tech, he was an adequate teacher, but hardly ever accessible to students.

When Andersen finally decided to come to terms with his drinking, he formed the Center for the Study of Addiction. Early on, he sent a student to the Hazelden Center in Minnesota for treatment for heavy alcohol addiction. The boy's parents called Andersen to say their son would not be returning to Lubbock.

"The actual figures are that in adolescents and young adults, 95 percent will relapse if they go back to where they came from," Andersen says. "I thought, 'Where can he go to college in an alcohol- and drug-free environment?' I realized there was no place to go, and the idea was born that we could create a place where recovery is honored and where we've got the support mechanism to create a community of recovering students."

That means the Tech scholarships are not just about money, although students are rewarded for staying sober and keeping their grades up.

The broader concept is to provide students with a place in college where everyone wants to be sober. For Hurta, who now maintains a 3.49 GPA and plans to be a substance abuse counselor, it's his first real chance at acceptance without having to hold a drink in his hand.

"For me, what this really is is a support network," Hurta says. "There's a small group of us here that have been through the drinking and the drugging and the pain, and we can go out together and stay sober and have a good time. Whether it's a good day or a bad day for me, I know that I have a support network of people that hold me accountable."

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