Following Through

John McNerney explains how he came back to college to fulfill his dreams

Some passions don’t fade. Even when life gets in the way.

John McNerney began experimenting with art in high school. He dabbled in architecture and design classes and dreamed of someday being an interior designer. As someone who grew up poor, McNerney never loved his living conditions; that ignited his desire to change his environment.

John McNerney

John McNerney

“I could at least change a little portion of the world around me,” he says.

McNerney is currently an interior designer for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Cleveland. It wasn’t until more recently when he was able to design the living he has hoped to experience for decades.

Revisiting Academia

McNerney joined the military right after high school graduation. Through his experience, he developed a great sense of discipline and better understood the “no excuses” mindset. But when McNerney returned home after his service, “life happened,” distracting him from opportunities to return to formal schooling. Eventually, 20 years had passed after high school graduation, and that is when McNerney decided to come back to college.

Several other jobs kept McNerney’s passion for art alive through the years. For example, he could visualize the meals he created as a chef before they were ready to serve. However, when McNerney met Laura Conley during new student orientation at The University of Akron, he knew he was on the right path to bring his passion to fruition.

“I hadn’t known where to look for moral support,” McNerney says, adding, “but when I met Laura, she helped me realize nothing could get in my way. She kept me accountable and was constantly by my side to help.” Conley is director of Adult Focus at The University of Akron.

Considering the medical conditions McNerney deals with on a daily basis, he encountered some obstacles when coming back to college. He had to take a nine-month break from classes because of the issues he faced.

“I had to learn how to juggle several responsibilities at once,” he says. “But when I returned to college the second time, my Adult Focus advisors had kept my files organized, which made the transition much easier.”

An example of McNerney's work

An example of McNerney’s work

Adult Focus also helped McNerney learn how to be his own advocate for his own needs.

“I didn’t sit around and watch the world go by while I was in college,” McNerney says. “For example, I was inspired by one of my professors who made me aware of an opportunity to participate in an Inter-Discipline Program between The University of Akron and the Akron Zoo. I embraced this challenge and became aware of how my field of study is not limited to residential and typical commercial spaces.”

McNerney also discovered and joined several professional organizations during his time on campus. He became a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and the United States Green Building Council, both of which have chapters at The University of Akron. McNerney continues to find inspiration and motivation from these organizations as he maintains relationships with them.

“I tapped into the resources available to me,” McNerney says. “I had to make contacts and explore new possibilities.”

Soon enough, McNerney learned what it felt like to be on the dean’s list—and a few honors societies—several semesters in a row.

Giving Back

Adult Focus advisors asked McNerney to mentor a few adult learners during his second year of classes.

He maintained strong relationships with two of the three individuals he mentored. One woman returned to college thinking “average” was good enough in her classes, but McNerney encouraged her to reach higher and achieve more.

“She had such joy when she saw her first ‘A,’ McNerney says. “She had put forth just a little bit more effort, earned her degree and now she’s working in her field.”

Another adult learner McNerney mentored experienced social adjustment problems. Because he was also computer illiterate, McNerney showed him how to access technological systems rather than be afraid of them.

“Adult learners are frequently petrified of computer technology,” McNerney says. “My mentee was no exception. The longer a person is away from school, the larger the fear is of embracing technology. I had to master computer technology or sink as an interior designer.”

“As an adult student, technology can be an obstacle to overcome,” McNerney explains. “I even had to sharpen my skills to succeed. I discovered computer training that is available at the Akron-Summit County Public Library, and it only made sense to me to pass on this vital resource to other adult learners who may struggle with the same issues.”

McNerney enjoyed the mentorship experiences he had, from watching his mentees conquer their hurdles to guiding—not doing—their work.

“I enjoyed helping others embrace the opportunity of going back to school,” he says. Comradeship fizzles out to a great degree the longer you’re away from the academic environment. But establishing relationships with other adults through mentoring improved my experience, too.”

As McNerney says, “There’s always help out there if you make yourself available to it.”

Settled In

McNerney ultimately earned his bachelor of arts degree in interior design from The University of Akron’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“When you nurture your dreams, you find the opportunity you need to get where you want to go,” he says. “I had to dig and dig until I found that ‘window of opportunity’—veterans frequently give up rather than discovering the resources available to them. For me, the fight was worth the effort I expended while searching for ways to learn.”

Beautification Project site in Cuyahoga Falls

The site at which McNerney is a steward for the Beautification Project in Cuyahoga Falls

He thanks Adult Focus for the integrity, commitment and determination he gained at The University of Akron.

“I cannot forget the contributions that have led me to where I am today,” he says. “Not only did I find a way, I found some friends that I still cherish today.”

Since graduation, McNerney discovered two grass roots organizations—the Greater Akron Innovative Network for Sustainability and Permaculture Akron—that meet once each month and allow him to continue to participate in beautification projects in and around Akron.

The Akron-area native is now happy working in the medical environment at the Department of Veterans Affairs. From managing facilities such as the Veterans Affairs Hospital and 18 community-based, out-patient clinics, McNerney is grateful to have been exposed to several aspects of his new job within the span of only three months.