CRANFORD, NJ – When it came to his college career, Ryan Nealis had a schedule and a goal, and he achieved both, completing his associate’s degree from Union County College in less than a year.

When the 33-year-old father of three from Elizabeth enrolled in Union County College during 2014, he came with a sense of urgency. “I’m not a kid. I have real-world experience. I went from living in a park to working for $90,000-plus a year at a bank. I wasn't happy, I was miserable actually. Without a college degree, I was unable to switch fields, unable to search for employment that would allow me to spend time with my three children and work in a field where my children are able to look up to me. I wanted to complete the associate degree in less than a year and then go right into a bachelor’s program.”

Besides the challenge of juggling college with his life responsibilities, Nealis had dropped out of school in 10th grade and would be venturing into a classroom for the first time in 16 years, but he knew a college degree could launch him into the career he’d always envisioned for himself—“I’ve always wanted to do something to help people.”

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He passed his high-school equivalency on the first attempt and registered for three classes in Union’s second summer session and four more in the fall of 2014. Through the College’s Assessment Center, he was also able to take tests to earn 12 credits in the NJ State’s College Level Examination Program. As Coordinator of Student Success Tinny Cheung says, “When a student comes to us with a plan like Ryan’s—to complete his degree in a year—then it’s our job to do everything we can to help him succeed in achieving his goal.”

With Summer-term and Fall-semester success under his belt, Nealis was ready to make a big move in the spring of 2015. The College approved his request to take a whopping 22 credits (seven classes) during the 15-week semester. 

All of the classes were in a classroom—not online. “I actually bumped up my (grade point average) that semester,” Nealis recalls. “Of course, what complicated things was having to schlep to classes while being on crutches for three months with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and carrying around a 60-pound bag of books.”

Nealis completed his associate degree by taking three “killer” courses during the first summer term of 2015 (Statistics, Government, and Anatomy & Physiology). He earned 66 credits and an associate degree in Criminal Justice. His final grade-point average was a stellar 3.5, which would qualify him for entry in the national honor society.

Nealis plans to attend Commencement and receive his degree from President McMenamin during the winter ceremony, which will take place on Jan. 14 at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway. A week after that, Ryan expects to begin taking classes for his bachelor’s degree Kean University. “I’d like to finish in no more than three semesters,” he says.

Nealis’s future plans may include service for Homeland Security, the Fire Department, Law Enforcement or Corrections. “I want to be in a career where I can make a difference in people’s lives,” he says.