This interview was originally published in the spring 2012 issue of UNLV Magazine. Since then, he added a master's of education degree to his bachelor's in marketing. He is now an academic advisor in the Lee Business School and teaches first-year seminars part time.
For most young kids, Disney World is the place of dreams and wonder. Not for John Starkey. He vividly recalls watching a TV special on the happiest place on earth when he was 8 or 9. It crushed his spirit because he couldn't imagine ever escaping small-town poverty or breaking his family's cycle of addiction to make that trip. He's been there twice now and, with the support he found at UNLV, is taking on the fight for his life and inspiring others to get past their challenges.
I always thought, when I was growing up, there wasn't much for me other than basic minimum wage jobs. I thought I'd end up doing something illegal. That I'd be another problem coming from my family.
I come from a small town in West Virginia. We were very, very poor. When I was born I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. It's a lung disease that affects all the major organs.
My dad died when I was 4. My mother basically lived off his Social Security check and my disability check. Just knowing that set me up to be like, "I'm disabled. I have a lung disease that will keep me from doing things in life." Then she died when I was 11 of heart problems.
My older sister, from as long as I can remember, she's been addicted to drugs. When she became my guardian, I was put into the life of a drug addict. She overdosed twice in the two years I was living with her. She's now in jail, along with my uncle. It doesn't make you feel good about your future.
When I was younger, I never dreamed big.
Around the age of 13, I started living with random friends--couch surfing for weeks or months. I didn't want to be put in a foster home. I came across Grant Burton. He was not me. He was varsity basketball, voted best looking. I was rebellious and angry about my life. I dressed in black clothes. But he had an extra bed and invited me to stay. His family never asked me to leave.
Things started happening for me. People started mentioning college.
The aunt of one of my friends kind of kicked me in the ass. She heard my story and said, "Look at your options. You can get financial aid. You can leave your past." She suggested UNLV because the weather here could help my cystic fibrosis.
I fell in love with the campus. I moved into the Dayton Complex my freshman year. I started getting involved. Then I became a resident assistant. The experience of being an RA for someone like me who's had such a troubled past was so worthwhile because I did feel like I was in another family. I had an opportunity to care for 40 students each year, and I had a boss and co-workers who became my family.
The college experience is just one huge opportunity to create change. My entire childhood, I never knew that I could create that change.
I'm an academic success coach at UNLV. I work with students who are typically at risk These students literally give me something to look forward to every day. I try to help them figure out their career path, figure out their passion. I try to help them learn the skills they need to be successful in college.
A lot of them have had troubled pasts and aren't sure if they can make it in college. I was that person. I've been provided so many opportunities in the university setting, I try to do for them what was done for me.
UNLV has given me some of the best mentors I have ever had. I took a diversity class from Doris Watson. It really helped me understand the culture of the disabled and the culture of people who come from low-income backgrounds. It helped me understand myself.
I'm starting to become an activist in a lot of ways. I'm trying to spread awareness about this disease and that it can be fought.
Now I can honestly say I am ready to take this on all by myself. I'm fighting this disease like I've never done before in my life.
It can be hard. CF patients have a horrendous time absorbing nutrients. I have to eat like 4,000 calories a day and I can't miss a breathing treatment. I take vitamins and several antibiotics and sinus pills. And CF males typically aren't able to have families. But I'm going to prove that wrong too.
My life expectancy is 38. I'm very sure I'm going to make it extremely past that. I'm fighting this disease so I can give back as many ways as possible.
Going through the university, getting a bachelor's degree, has made me feel like I am pretty indestructible.
Web extra: John Starkey shared his story as part of the university's Power of Higher Education campaign. Watch them all on the university's videos website.