AMHERST, Mass. – In the fall of 1984, Neil O. Priestly arrived at UMass intending to earn his bachelor’s degree in engineering. Four years later he was on his way out of the University, not with a degree, but about to be dismissed for poor grades.
Buton May 26, none of that will matter when he receives his bachelor’s degree in accounting with a 3.91 grade-point average from the Isenberg School of Management thanks to the University’s Fresh Start program for non-traditional students. "I guess you could say I’m attempting to prove that it’s better to succeed late than never," he says.
Priestly says when he first came to UMass, "I really wasn’t ready to be here." He says a single lecture class was as large as his entire class at Hanover High School.
Dennis Hanno, associate dean of undergraduate affairs at the Isenberg School, says Priestly is a classic example of how students can turn their academic careers around, and a testament to the value of the Fresh Start program. He says students entering the Isenberg school need at least a 3.6 grade-point average, and Priestly’s 4.0 from junior college, compared to his low grades from his first time around at UMass convinced administrators to admit him. "Something had obviously changed for this young man," Hanno says. Under the Fresh Start program non-traditional students who are away for more than three years can return to UMass, and have all grades wiped off the record, he says.
Priestly’s journey from college failure to the Dean’s List includes a detour into the corporate world where he was a manager for a small cinema that eventually went out of business. He recalls that during that time, he sometimes had to hire new workers, and although he lacked his college degree, would skip candidates who lacked a bachelor’s degree from his hiring pool. The significance of that wasn’t lost on him, Priestly says.
He says he became a part-time manager of the AMC Theater at the Mountain Farms Mall in Hadley while first attending UMass in the late 1980s. By 1990, when he had left school, he was a full-time manager. "I had a whole lot of practice at brush-fire management," Priestly says, working to fill positions and juggle many responsibilities. And he knew the theater wasn’t going to last as the market changed and business trailed off. "I was the last person out the door when the theater closed in 2001," Priestly says.
A few years earlier he had decided that being a theater manager wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, but he enjoyed living in the area, first in Sunderland, and later in Belchertown. He began taking classes at Greenfield Community College, and latertransferred to Holyoke Community College in 1992. When he finished his associate’s degree at HCC in 1998, he did so as class valedictorian.
In the summer of 2000 he began working to get back into UMass, and was admitted in January 2001. A few months later he lost his theater job. Taking classes in the spring, summer, fall, January intersession, and spring 2002 semesters, Priestly finally earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting. He recently took the exam to become a certified public accountant.
Richard Simpson, associate professor of accounting, says Priestly was always an excellent student. "He’s a hard worker, he contributes in class, and is a terrific, motivated guy," Simpson says. "He once told me to watch out, that he might contribute too much in my class."
Priestly’sfuture plans are to join a large accounting firm in the region. As for more higher education, Priestly says that’s a possibility. "I might enroll in an MBA program, or maybe just take some courses in stuff that interests me," he says. "Maybe astronomy, I don’t know. That’s what life in the Valley is all about, we can always learn new things."