meet UWW alumnus professor Mark O'Maley

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Professor Mark O'Maley was a one of those kids who struggled in school. Dyslexic, he didn't think he was very smart, graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth and dropped out of college. But with the support of his parents and UWW he found his way back to school and excelled. At the age of 35, Mark earned a BA through UMass Amherst UWW with a focus in Lighting Design for Art, Architecture & Performance and then went on to earn his MFA from Goddard College. He is now Assistant Professor of Theatre & Dance at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire where he teaches lighting and scenic design. 

Every non-traditional age student has a story. What’s your story?
I have learning disabilities…umm….differences - rather, I'm dyslexic, so school has never been easy. I find I often say I've had a very different academic journey. I never thought of myself as smart. I originally started at UMass Amherst in the fall of 1991 as a theater major- right out of high school. I was a horrible student, and truthfully didn't want to be in college. But it was what I was supposed to do at that point in my life. That original stint at UMass ended in 1994 when I dropped out of college and started working as a lighting and scenic designer for theater and dance. I had the good fortune to go to work at the American Repertory Theater which is part of Harvard University for four years - where I was learning by doing, but also learning by working with and observing the highest caliber theater artists from around the world. From there I have traveled around the world lighting shows and designing sets - including  off-Broadway in New York City and in London's West End - but I had oddly started working as a guest artist at schools and found I loved working with students. My work as  production manager for Rennie Harris Puremovement ended up bringing me back onto the UMass Amherst campus to perform at the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall in 2001 - and that's the moment that really pushed me back to wanting to complete my BA.

Why did you choose UMass Amherst UWW to complete your degree?
I had been living in Philadelphia for seven years and had been toying with completing my BA. So I looked at schools there such as Temple, Drexel, and Penn. Most all of them frowned on my GPA of 2.0 from 1991-1994, and if they were willing to accept me, I lost so many credits and would have had to spend close to 3 years to complete a BA. None of them were interested in what I had been doing as a professional designer and teacher. I was in my mid 30s and I was reassessing my life and work, and getting a degree figured into my future plans more and more. My mom was actually the one that told me about UWW at UMass Amherst - and there was something so appealing to me from those first glimpse of the program - it just felt like where I was supposed to be. It seemed that UWW was looking at the whole person, rather than just who I was at 19 years old, or a GPA from many years ago. UWW was interested in what I had been doing since I left campus - and earning prior learning credits was a huge attraction. Professor Penny Remsen in the Theater Department was a pretty big influence on my coming back to UMass Amherst as well. 

What was the best part about being a UMass Amherst UWW student for you?
For the first time ever - as a UWW student - I was free of cookie cutter education - and I was in charge of what I wanted to be doing academically. This was radical to me, and exciting. I had a plan ("not a contract"as my advisor Ed Golding was fond of saying) for what I wanted to do combining lighting design for art, architecture, and performance. UWW was in full support of my plan…. ummm...dreams, and UMass offered the tools to get there via the theater, art history, and architecture & design departments.

What was your favorite class at UMass Amherst?
There were two favs - "19th Century Architecture" and "20th Century Architecture" - both with Professor Timothy Rohan in the Art History Department. Those two classes have so deeply influenced how I "see" and have given me a treasure trove of visual knowledge for my theatrical work. I think back to how as a UWW student at the time I wasn't allowed to pre-register for the course and had to show up at the first class to get in. It was already over filled, and I had to keep showing up to try to get in. I think Tim eventually took pity on me and let me in. I believe it was his class that showed me I could actually thrive in an academic setting - and recall calling my parents (mind you I was 33 years old!) almost yelling at the top of my lungs about the grade I got on the first paper for the class - an A. Tim is someone who I've remained in contact with post UWW - along with Professor Ray Mann, from the Architecture & Design Program.

What was the best part of writing a portfolio to earn credit for experience for you?
For me, it was the first time in my life where I stepped back and really looked at all I have achieved - outside formal education. That was pretty eye-opening for me. It was a moment of taking stock. It was also daunting - 300 pages! I count myself as lucky during that process - having such a great, caring, and giving group of fellow students in UWW 370 Writing About Experience - with whom we all shared our writing and efforts towards the final portfolio. And Ed Golding was an amazing guide through the process.

Where did you take your classes?  Online?  On campus?  Blended?
I took my classes on campus where I was face to face with professors and fellow students. I did one of my Gen Eds at Temple University and completed my R1&2 at Delaware County Community college in Pennsylvania. UMass Amherst was super helpful with the transfer credit precess.

How did you balance work, school and other responsibilities?  What advice do you have for adult college students?
I cannot even begin to answer this question without saying how amazing my parents are. They made it possible for me to return to UMass Amherst and finish my degree. I made the move from Philadelphia to Amherst and dove in full-time to complete my degree. I worked part-time at the Mullins Center running the follow-spot (light) during hockey and basketball games and did some freelance design work to make ends meet. It was a challenge - no doubt. I found then, as I did when I was recently working on my MFA,  it was about setting a schedule and not letting anything disrupt it. I got up at 5am, got my coffee and spent 2-3 hours on academic work, went to work, then came home for a couple hours reading etc. It got hectic when I was designing and etching a show, and going to classes. But it all worked out somehow.

In what ways did UMass Amherst UWW prepare you for graduate school.
When I finished UWW grad school was not at all on my radar. But it was really just a year or so later when Temple University offered me a full ride in their Theater MFA program. I jumped at the offer but very quickly saw that - after my time at UWW - cookie cutter programs just didn't work for me. I left Temple I started in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program at Goddard College in the the summer of 2010 . It was ideal for me. I was designing my own program again. It was student-centered education. I found while in the MFA-IA program I often spoke of UWW - and referred back to my portfolio all the time. It was really UWW 370 Writing About Experience that prepped me for grad school - and I didn't even know it at the time! My time back on the UMass campus I was pulling 3.7 GPA ( i think!?) and I saw I could be a legitimate student and learn. UWW allowed me to see myself as a student, and as a possible graduate student.                                    

Tell us about your current job.
I have two jobs presently. I am the Production Manager for the Vermont Governor's Institute on the Arts which is held at Castleton State College each summer for 150 high school Vermonters, and In May 2012 I was appointed Assistant Professor of Theatre & Dance at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire - where I teach lighting and scenic design. I find there are these moments where I'm sitting in my office, and that BA from UMass and MFA from Goddard are hanging on the wall, and I have the fancy academic regalia - and laugh - because I'm the kid that barely graduated high school and dropped out of college. Just goes to show you never know who or what a student will become when they grow up. Wait. Did I just say I grew up? Anyway - there are parts of academia I could do with out - such as all the faculty meetings - but I love getting into the theater and working with the students, challenging them, helping them fly, helping them to see new things.

What are your plans for the future- professional and personally?
The plans are to continuing to grow as a teacher and artist  - and to buy some  land in southern Vermont to build a house out of shipping containers. This New Englander is happy to be back home.

Tell readers something cool about yourself that no one would guess about you?
Even though I have close to 100 tattoos, I'm pretty old fashioned and I'm scared of needles. The ink still breaks my mom's heart.

Please add anything else you want people to know about you, your family, and your story. 
I have a cat who's name is Sushi.