Dina O’Neil had always been the type of student to get good grades. After graduating from high school in 1997, she hoped to join the Navy and fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. She watched those dreams slip away after she let the influence of the wrong people lead her down a path riddled with poor choices—choices that eventually landed her in jail.
O’Neil served three years—years she describes as painful. As much as she needed the support of those she is closest to—her mother, daughter and fiancé—she acknowledged that their visits were difficult.
“My daughter was a teenager,” O’Neill said. “It wasn’t like she was a child. She knew what was going on.”
And yet without that continued support, O’Neil said she wouldn’t be where she is today, which is a place of new beginnings.
Equally important in her transition to freedom from incarceration was Gateway Community College’s New Start/Fresh Start program, headed by Dr. Kerin Lee. The program, initiated at Gateway in 2010, assists women on parole with job placement, childcare, housing and transportation, and academic counseling.
At the time, O’Neil said she didn’t realize how important the New Start/Fresh Start program would become to her. “The Fresh Start opportunity came before I had even gone home, and I took it. I wasn’t thinking how hard it would be to have a felony record. I didn’t even know.”
Starting over at Gateway proved to be challenging too, though her strong academic background helped, as did the support of Dr. Lee.
“She had faith in me,” O’Neil said.
This May, O’Neil graduated from Gateway with an Associate Degree in Human Services. She admits that she isn’t exactly where she’d envisioned herself but that she’s content. She’s thinking of continuing her education in radiation therapy, so she can finally realize her dream of becoming a nurse. She’s also grateful for what the New Start/Fresh Start program helped her accomplish and would love to be a mentor to someone else who is struggling.
“I didn’t expect to be incarcerated but I can’t go back,” she said. “I wouldn’t change my mistakes. I’ve completed rehab. My daughter has learned from me. I tell her what I learned: Do what you’re supposed to be doing. Make the right choices.”