By Douglas Moser
Even a year ago, Christina O’Neill didn’t think she would make it this far.
On the verge of being kicked out of college last spring following the death of close friend Kelsey Richardson, O’Neill graduated yesterday from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management prospects at Bank of America.
“I needed to graduate for Kelsey,” O’Neill, 25, of North Andover. “I needed to graduate for myself.”
She was one of 3,169 students to receive degrees from the school yesterday. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, a Lowell native who led the police department there for 12 years, delivered the commencement address.
“Every single day for the rest of your life is going to provide a learning opportunity for you,” Davis told the Class of 2013, who come from Massachusetts and 44 other states. “I’m here to tell you that virtually every decision I made from the moment I first learned about the explosions [at the Boston Marathon] was based on the totality of my learned life experiences that have spanned the more than three decades since I graduated with my first college degree.”
O’Neill was also born in Lowell, but her family moved to North Andover around her first birthday. Her father, who worked at Lucent Technologies, had health problems during her years at North Andover High School, and eventually required surgery.
Her first year of college, at Assumption College in Worcester, was rocky and O’Neill said she never settled in there, even though her sister went to nearby Worcester Polytechnic Institute and her mother encouraged her to stick it out. “I got the feeling I didn’t fit there, with everything that was going on with my dad,” she said.
“I’m very much a daddy’s girl,” she added.
She finished out the year at Assumption with the intention of transferring out. Her mother recommended UMass Lowell, but several members of her family and her family’s friends graduated from there. “I was firm about making my own story,” she said.
But with her father, who retired from Lucent as it closed its doors for good, unable to work after his surgeries and her mother bearing the weight of supporting the family, O’Neill felt obligated to work while she was going to school.
So she decided to enroll at Northern Essex Community College full time and worked part time as a teller at a Bank of America branch in Haverhill. “I felt like I had to do something,” she said. “I couldn’t just go to school. My parents were adamant about getting a degree.”
She met Richardson in a writing class at NECC, she said, and they immediately clicked. Richardson was dealing with her own personal issues, O’Neill said, and they grew close by having each other to talk through their difficulties.
They planned their transfer programs together and both decided to enroll at UMass Lowell once they completed their programs at NECC.
But in July 2010, weeks before they were to start at UMass Lowell, Richardson died in a car crash on Interstate 495 in Haverhill. Normally wearing her emotions on her sleeve, O’Neill kept her feelings about Richardson’s death in. Her mother, not realizing how hard her daughter was taking her friend’s death, still encouraged her to continue with school and go to UMass as planned.
”But I struggled and struggled the whole time here,” O’Neill said. “(Richardson) was the only person I knew.”
Her grades suffered from the start, and she found herself on academic probation, and then academic suspension. Embarrassed that she was having trouble and not wanting to add to her families troubles, she hid the school’s warning letters from her mother.
After her second semester, with academic probation looming, some new friends encouraged her to write a letter to Dr. Frank Andrews, the assistant dean of the Manning School of Business. Even though the act was difficult — “I didn’t want special treatment,” she said. “I didn’t want people to feel bad for me” — she pleaded her case, earning an invitation to his office for a meeting.
Andrews agreed to help her. Her grades improved dramatically, but for the next two semesters, she missed the minimum GPA by tenths of a point. She even enlisted the help of Kristen Rhyner, coordinator of advising services for UMass Lowell’s Centers for Learning and Academic Support Services. The office is there to support any students having trouble to manage their time and figure out how to improve their grades.
”My first meeting (with O’Neill), we established a new plan,” Rhyner said. “She knew how to be a good student, but she had to do things differently because she had to make up for lost time and, as she said, to ramp things up.”
Rhyner said O’Neill needed a time management plan to help her organize her school time, her job at Bank of America, and her personal time.
But still O’Neill just missed the threshold. In the spring of 2012, she received a letter notifying her she could not return to school the following semester. “That was hard, seeing ‘formally dismissed’ in bold,” she said.
During that time she could feel Richardson’s presence, encouraging her on. “I knew she would be excellent, and I didn’t want to let her down,” O’Neill said.
She determined to appeal the dismissal, asking for one more chance to clear the hurdle. Vice Provost Charlotte Mandell, who reviewed her appeal, was impressed with her progress and hard work, and gave her a reprieve.
”The next semester, I hit it out of the park,” O’Neill said. Her final two semesters, she just missed dean’s list. Rhyner helped her not only with time management, but with test taking, picking classes and being a cheerleader.
”Without my friends I made here, and without Kristen, I wouldn’t be graduating,” she said.
Rhyner appreciated the sentiment, but disagreed. “She said she couldn’t have done it without me, but I know she had it within her,” she said. “She just needed a little support. She’s a hard worker. She exceeded my expectations and achieved more credits than I thought she would because it was a big jump. She made big improvements in her GPA very quickly.”
Even with her GPA finally in better territory, O’Neill said she could not stop worrying, checking her grades in each class almost compulsively. Last week, with graduation days away, she said it still had not sunk in that she made it.
After graduation, O’Neill said she plans to look for management opportunities at Bank of America.
She hopes her story inspires other students struggling that it is possible to climb out. “One wish I have out of this, if any student hears my story, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “You will graduate.”