May 15, 2016
MANCHESTER — Joseph O’Neill always wanted to earn a high school diploma, but struggles with drug and alcohol addiction got in the way.
O’Neill, 61, will receive that credential on Thursday as a graduate of Manchester Adult Education’s credit diploma program.
It was a long road to his recent success, said O’Neill, who moved to Manchester from Enfield just over 25 years ago.
His family moved around for much of his youth, as his father joined the National Guard after serving in World War II, later earning a doctoral degree through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or G.I. Bill.
School never came easy to O’Neill, he said, although substance abuse also played a role. He dropped out of high school at age 16, believing school just wasn’t for him, he said.
“After dropping out, I basically gave up,” he said. “I started to get into drugs, and I think I had some deep-rooted psychological problems.”
Born in 1955, O’Neill went through the draft lottery in 1975, but wasn’t called to serve in the military. He continued to use alcohol and drugs, at first recreationally but then became addicted. He struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for more than 20 years before spending four years in a rehabilitation program at Norwich State Hospital.
“It didn’t feel as though it helped at the time, but looking back, it helped,” he said.
After being released from the program, O’Neill was homeless a few times before deciding to get his act together and add value to his life. He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that have led to 22 years of sobriety.
O’Neill, who’s worked for 25 years in demolition, landscaping, and remodeling, started to contemplate going back to school 10 years ago. He failed the General Education Development test four times but didn’t lose the desire for a diploma.
On the brink of retirement, it seemed like an appropriate time to get serious and engage in an education, he said.
After spending a few years in Adult Basic Education programs, O’Neill was urged by administrators at Manchester Adult Education to join the credit diploma program.
He decided to give the program a chance and found himself excelling in the classroom.
“Finally I came here and started taking courses and did very well, and I was surprised,” he said.
The credit diploma program in the back of Manchester High School mirrors the traditional high school experience, Director Diane Kearney said, with classes four times a week in the evenings.
O’Neill depends on the bus and friends to get rides to school, but he always arrives at school around 45 minutes before class to read, Kearney said, a newly discovered passion of his.
Kearney applauded O’Neill for his perfect attendance over six years and his unrelenting resolve in the program that usually serves a younger crowd.
“The kids look up to him,” Kearney said. “The kids depend on him for guidance, motivation, and inspiration.”
While he never expected to influence others, O’Neill credits the program’s tutoring services as his formula to receiving good grades.
As acknowledgment for his success, this March the Connecticut Association for Adult & Continuing Education gave O’Neill its award as “Learner of the Year.”
O’Neill will take math and English courses this summer with Reaching Educational Achievement for College Transition, a free service provided by Manchester Adult Education partnered with Manchester Community College.
He will soon enroll at MCC, O’Neill said, adding that he hasn’t decided what to study or whether he intends to apply his studies to a new career. Qualifying as a senior citizen, O’Neill would receive near full financial support.
“We will see where it goes,” he said, “Like a lot of people say, once you get an education it can’t be taken away from you, so I just want to see how far I can go.”