Menomonie, Wis. — Danielle Conlon was a salon owner and hair stylist when she decided to go back to school. Working long hours, she developed arthritis. Her hands cramped up on a regular basis. Standing all day became difficult. And she felt she was missing out on her children’s lives.
“I knew finding a job that paid as well would be difficult considering my specific skill set. But it was time for me to find a new path,” she said.
Conlon applied to UW-Stout in June 2017. She planned to finish her management degree, which she started at Lakeland College in 2005.
Then she discovered she could incorporate her business experience and interest in technology in the online information and communication technology program.
“I did some research as to what the ICT program entailed, what kind of jobs I could get with that degree, and I liked what I saw,” she said.
Conlon also spoke with Senior Lecturer Evan Sveum, the program director. “I like to talk to incoming students to find out who they are, where they’re coming from, what their goals are,” Sveum said. “Danielle was a little different, coming from a career change. Her attitude is – I’m going to do this. Get out of my way.”
UW-Stout has four Online Adult Degree Completion options.
Struggling to find a balance
Conlon started her online degree while transitioning to close the salon. She also started a new job as co-manager at a large retail store near her home in Oconto. Working seven days a week between the salon and the store, Conlon kept up with her schoolwork and relied on her husband and children to take care of chores at home.
In January 2018, Conlon officially closed the salon. It was both heartbreaking and exciting for her. “When one door closes, another always opens. I knew I was in the hallway leading to the next door. What I didn’t know was how long that hallway would end up being and the toll it would take on me and my family,” she said.
Under poor management and high stress at work, Conlon was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and placed on medication. She was exhausted, mentally and physically. Her grades began to slide. She stopped paying her bills. She sobbed in private, not wanting her family to see her struggling.
“I felt like a failure,” she said. “I lost my confidence, my self-discipline. I finally reached out to my mom for help. She told me that I couldn’t go on like this and I had to do something.”
Conlon’s doctor told her to take some time off of work, and she was approved for medical leave. During that time, Conlon’s employer notified her that her position was being eliminated.
“Yay! Never had I been so happy to lose a job,” she said.
A new outlook despite new challenges
In October 2019, Conlon was hired at RGL Logistics, a third-party distributor for Georgia Pacific, supplying businesses and medical facilities with cleaning, paper and sanitizing products. Conlon was promoted to Customer Service team lead in March, before graduation.
“Then COVID-19 hit,” she said. “We are an essential business. Business increased by 125%, which meant we were operating at 225% capacity, pushing out loads of product faster than we could get the product in.”
Despite the long hours, there was one major difference from her last job – Conlon enjoyed the distributor’s management and appreciated the praise and empathy she received.
Surging ahead in her senior capstone
In the ICT senior capstone, students work in consulting teams to find solutions for real business clients. With misidentified roles, Conlon’s team’s group dynamics were less than desirable. But she surged ahead, completing much of the technical aspects on her own.
Ultimately, the client was unsatisfied with the consulting team’s work. Conlon contacted Sveum to learn what she could have done better. She wanted to learn from the poor experience and walk away with something she could use later, turning the shortcomings into a new strength.
Sveum recognized Conlon as a leader. “Leaders make themselves known through process and progress,” he said. “I would like to bring her back as an alumni consultant for future student teams. It was a pleasure to know her.”
She continually seeks ways to improve her position and is pursuing certification as a Salesforce administrator. She plans to look for a related career upon receiving certification.
When the virtual commencement was announced for May 9, Conlon was devastated. She had been so excited to walk across the stage to receive her diploma. And when graduates were asked to submit photos for a virtual presentation, Conlon missed the deadline due to pressures at work.
Seeing her mom disappointed again, Conlon’s 16-year-old daughter, Jaidan, sent a message to Chancellor Katherine P. Frank, asking if her mom could still submit her photo.
“I know that it would mean a great deal to her, and I am so, so proud of her for pursuing her goals and going back to school,” Jaidan wrote to the chancellor. “It has been hard for my brother and me, but she is our role model.”
Thanks to her daughter’s forethought, Conlon’s photo was added to the presentation. “Never, in a million years did I think anyone, especially a 16-year-old, would take it upon herself to reach out like she did,” Conlon said.
“These last three years were not only difficult for me – my family sacrificed a great deal as well. But these sacrifices made us stronger. Without my family’s love and support I may not have this degree.”
Conlon strives to set a good example for her kids and demonstrates that hard work is worth it.
“The thing is, all of that hard work we put into achieving our dreams makes us appreciate them so much more,” she said. “I am so proud of myself for keeping with it, despite the many trials and tribulations that threatened to interfere with my journey.”
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.