25 years after his first class, former UNK custodian earns degree

Sonny O’Connor worked as a custodian while attending UNK and used the university’s employee...
Sonny O’Connor worked as a custodian while attending UNK and used the university’s employee scholarship program to cover tuition costs. He’ll graduate Friday with a bachelor’s degree in general studies.(Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)
Published: May. 5, 2021 at 11:20 AM CDT
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KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - Sonny O’Connor has heard plenty of “Good Will Hunting” jokes during his time at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Honestly, it’s a persona he’s learned to embrace.

“I have this self-deprecating sense of humor anyway, so it doesn’t really bother me a whole heck of a lot,” O’Connor says. “Half the time I’m right there making jokes with them, because it’s equally funny and surreal to me.”

As a fan of all things Boston, the 44-year-old undergraduate student doesn’t mind being compared to Matt Damon’s character in the Academy Award-winning film – except this former custodian is more interested in history than math.

Like Will Hunting, a self-taught genius who worked as a janitor at MIT, O’Connor also struggled to find direction in his life.

He calls his journey “The Story of the Extended Break.”

A graduate of Kearney Catholic High School, O’Connor first enrolled at UNK in spring 1996, but he only lasted a year.

“I was completely undisciplined and unmotivated,” O’Connor said. “I basically partied myself out of school.”

In the back of his mind, though, he knew a college education was the key to his preferred career. That thought lingered for several years before O’Connor returned to the classroom in 2003. He took classes off and on for the next three years, then put his education on the back burner when his first child was born.

“School has always been about how I could afford it and finding a way to make it happen,” O’Connor explained.

With three more children arriving over the next 10 years, coming up with the money to cover tuition became increasingly difficult.

Then a job posting changed his fortunes. UNK was hiring for a custodian position.

“A bunch of my friends said, ‘Hey, UNK offers tuition reimbursement. You should really get your foot in the door,’” said O’Connor, who started working for the university in June 2016.

By fall 2019, he was taking full advantage of the employee scholarship program, which allows full-time and retired employees to take up to 15 credit hours per year without paying tuition.

“That’s when it all took off,” O’Connor said. “I started taking as many classes as I could while trying to raise four kids and work a full-time job.”

O’Connor describes the next year as a “strange but fun” experience.

In the morning, he was the guy emptying trash cans, mopping floors and filling paper towel dispensers inside University Residence North and University Residence South – UNK’s fraternity and sorority housing. That afternoon, he was the first one to arrive for class, often confusing other students who mistook him for the professor or a staff member on break.

Once they got to know him, O’Connor said, his classmates and instructors were extremely friendly and supportive.

“That was something I found super refreshing,” he said.

With a renewed focus on his education, O’Connor took one or two classes a semester while working at UNK. This commitment was a complete 180 from his teenage years.

“I often think to myself, ‘You could have done this when you were younger if you had the same motivation you have now. You really could have,’” O’Connor said.

After leaving his position at UNK in September – he currently works from home as an employee of First National Bank of Omaha – O’Connor used his income tax return to pay for his final 15 credit hours this semester.

He’ll graduate Friday with a bachelor’s degree in general studies – a moment 25 years in the making. His wife Rachel and children Jadon, 14, Liam, 12, Nora, 7, and Eamon, 4, will be there to watch as he walks across the stage to receive his diploma.

Just like “Good Will Hunting,” O’Connor’s story definitely had its ups and downs, and it’s almost certain to end in an emotional scene.

“It’s never really been about what I can achieve,” O’Connor said, tears filling his eyes. “It’s always been about the betterment of us as a whole, as a family, more than it’s ever been about me.”

Of course, every good movie needs an inspirational quote, too.

“If I can do it, really anybody can do it,” said O’Connor, who is already thinking about pursing a master’s degree in history.

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