Curtis Elliott was shocked to learn he had congenital disc disease after visiting a doctor for a back injury in 2004.
"I was a pretty strong guy," he said.
The diagnosis meant that his career as a construction worker was over. And, as he began to take stock of his life, he didn't like who he had become.
"I was spiritually, emotionally, physically, completely bankrupt," he said. "The way I was living my life was not the way I should. I was bankrupt in every sense of the word."
He began addressing his personal problems and looking for ways to secure a better future.
Kathy Etchegoyen, with the Nevada Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, pointed him to Western Nevada College in Carson City, where he went on to earn his associate's degree in project management.
His counselor at the time, John Kinkella, who is now dean of students, wouldn't let him stop there.
And Elliott rose to the challenge. On Monday, he will receive his bachelor's degree in construction management, part of the largest graduating class from WNC.
"I'm very grateful," he said. "I'm eternally indebted to WNC, the faculty and the administration."
Although Elliott, 44, calls it the best decision of his life, pursuing his degree was never easy.
He and his wife, April, 35, are raising their six combined children, ranging in age from 7 to 13. Elliott has continued to coach Little League and be involved in other areas of community service. He served as president of the National Associated Students of Construction, performing several service projects throughout the community, including remodeling the home of a fellow student in Silver Springs whose husband was dying.
His wife began taking courses at the college, as well, balancing school with a career as a hairstylist.
"He inspired me to start going to school," April said. "I've been doing hair for a long time, but that's not going to put the kids through school."
And that's where Elliott wants them to end up.
"I hope that by my example our children will all want to go to college," he said.
Elliott is a good student, but it comes as a result of intense dedication. Throughout his years, he never missed turning in a single assignment.
"I study," he said. "I study a lot. It's not because I'm smart. I think I graduated 238 out of, like, 250 at Carson High School. And I'm going to graduate with honors from college. Isn't that crazy? But it's not me. That's my higher power."
He judges his success, not by the traditional grade-point average, but by individual grades.
"I've gotten 41 A's, 13 B's and three C's," he reports.
Despite the challenges he's faced, it's been worth it.
"I wouldn't change one thing," he said. "I'm very fortunate. I have more options today. I've got a larger box I can apply my degree to. I'm not in a small box anymore."
He has a promising job prospect lined up and his once-bankrupt soul is now filled with gratitude.
"I am totally grateful for the people I've met at WNC," he said. "Some of the greatest people I've ever known are there."
His success, he said, is a result of those who have encouraged and helped him along the way.
"All these people had faith in me," he said. "They pulled me up when I couldn't really do it myself.