John DeLisa is grateful for a lot of things the past few years, but foremost is that he survived – and will graduate Thursday morning at UCF with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in musical theatre.
Drugs and alcohol coupled with a bipolar diagnosis led to his hospitalization before he enrolled at UCF, which is where he said he turned his life around – and has set about helping others avoid what he endured.
“UCF gave me the best second chance I’ve ever had,” said the Oviedo resident who grew up in Palm Harbor.
DeLisa’s first attempt at college life was as a music student at FSU, but things didn’t go as planned.
“My world view was not that great,” he said. “I was medicating myself with drugs and drinking, and not showing up at classes. If I did, I was messed up – drinking every day, stealing beer from my roommates, writing bad checks to drug dealers.
“Luckily I had family to pick me up.”
He said he was about to be kicked out of the FSU music program, so instead he took a medical withdrawal from the university and was hospitalized for treatment in Palm Harbor, where in 2011 he started his road back to the life he wanted. He resumed classes at a community college, became active in a substance-abuse recovery program and worked part-time at a theatre to get back on path.
When it came time to take the next step in 2012, “UCF was the No. 1 school recommended by FSU – and it’s just two hours from home,” DeLisa said. “I met with [associate professor] Earl Weaver and it sold me. The campus is beautiful, the area is great, and it felt like the right fit. FSU wrote a nice letter of recommendation for me.”
Since then he has blossomed on stage and off.
He has had a leading role in a play every semester he’s been at UCF and, as a helping hand for others going through similar substance-abuse challenges, last year worked with a friend and UCF Health Services to help start the Students Supporting Recovery (SSR) program.
“John set an example for other students in recovery to be proud of their recovery and make the most of their college experience. SSR is an example of living the ‘college’ life without alcohol or other drugs,” said Tom Hall, director of Alcohol and Other Drug Programming at UCF. “Students in recovery attend parties, go to football games and celebrate holidays. The only difference is they have a substance-free college experience. This is an important message for UCF students who think they can’t have fun without drinking.”
The group is open to all students, those in recovery and those who support recovery. Next year the members plan to host on-campus sober tailgate parties and other events throughout the year. Following a request from the new organization, UCF Housing and Residence Life will offer to place recovering students together in housing starting this fall.
“There’s only so much you can do on your own,” DeLisa said about the hurdles to stay clean. “You’re at a dangerous spot, but once you know you have a place to belong you don’t have to drop out and essentially start your life over again. If I can stop one student from going through what I went through, it would be worth it.”
For his Honors in the Major thesis, he started the nonprofit Mailmen Theatre Group with fellow student Tommy Hall, and the two wrote a play about recovery that they plan to tour at schools, recovery groups and worship centers around Florida. Hall is the friend who also helped start the campus recovery group.
“I was praying about it and I wanted to combine my love of theatre with my love of helping,” DeLisa said. The play, “A Way Back,” is the similar story of a young addict in college who finds his hope in recovery and struggles to get back. The project, which he calls “drama therapy,” received a $10,000 Clinton Global Initiative grant.
“That was part of my journey,” he said. “I was always going out and getting drunk. I didn’t really know how else to fit in.”
While at UCF, DeLisa has performed in “The Music Man,” “Ragtime,” “The Pajama Game” and other plays, but he said his favorite role was the nervous and intense Moritz in “Spring Awakening,” a story set in Germany in the late 19th century.
It was his favorite part, he said, “because it was about a troubled young man who wasn’t very good at school and didn’t know where to fit in. It was very cathartic.” DeLisa said that after every performance he would text a family member or friend to thank them for helping him get his life back on track.
“John is an excellent student and a talented theatre artist. That says it all,” said Mark Routhier, an assistant professor of directing and acting. “If he had not come to know who he is and accept the changes he needed to make, he would have frittered away his education and his talent.”
Routhier was so impressed with DeLisa’s devotion to the craft that the young actor earned an internship beginning this summer at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, where Routhier is also director of new play development.
For the grateful graduate, his way through recovery – theatre – is the same as his way into the future, which is summed up in the Winston Churchill quote DeLisa attaches at the bottom of his email: “Never give up on something you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
John DeLisa is scheduled to graduate during UCF’s College of Arts & Humanities commencement ceremony at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 1, at the CFE Arena. For details about all of this week’s ceremonies, go to https://www.ucf.edu/news/ucf-celebrates-graduation-6-ceremonies-may-1-3/.