Bernard McDonnell already holds a master’s degree, but it has taken the 2010 nursing graduate of the Community College of Rhode Island almost 30 years to find his true calling.
“My life has never gone according to what I thought it would,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell, 50, of North Providence grew up in an Irish Catholic family outside of Boston that valued faith and education. He entered the seminary at Stonehill College at age 18 to study to enter the priesthood, but decided that the lonely clerical life was not for him.
“You discern whether God is actually calling you,” McDonnell said. “You either have the calling or you don’t, and I don’t think I did.”
Still enjoying the academic environment, McDonnell enrolled at St. John’s Seminary in Boston and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1982. “I got a degree right on schedule at age 22 and promptly didn’t know what do with it,” he said.
McDonnell’s father suggested that he become an electrician to make money, and he became an electrical apprentice and then a licensed electrician. At night, he took courses at UMASS Boston in psychology, music, literature and history, simply to satiate his curiosity.
“I’ve always been better with abstract reality than the reality,” McDonnell said about his academic pursuits. “I think there’s a thread in me that’s always been a little restless. I wouldn’t say I’m an intelligent guy. I’m a curious guy.”
By 1994, McDonnell turned these night classes into a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in literature, but he again could not find work with his academic qualifications and continued working as an electrician, running his own business from 1994 until 1998.
A slowing economy made jobs for electricians scarce and, in 1998, McDonnell became an English teacher in the Massachusetts public school system and correctional system.
He took a break from teaching in 2001 but in 2003, a former colleague, now a principal at North Attleboro High School, invited him to teach there to fill a vacancy. He found much more than a job.
“I did not have any intention of getting married but I go over there, and don’t I meet my wife!” McDonnell said.
He married a fellow teacher at the school, Helene Cosme, in 2005 and the couple moved to Providence. Around this time, McDonnell began to tire with teaching, having what he called “a midlife crisis that was positive.”
He took some time off to think about what he wanted to do next. McDonnell’s sister suggested that he consider nursing as a way to help others. A cancer survivor, she convinced McDonnell that the only purpose in life is to give love and be loved, and that he could offer comfort to others.
“The last thing I ever thought was that I would be a nurse,” McDonnell said. “But you can find out where there is a need and go there and do the work.”
McDonnell enrolled at CCRI in Fall 2006 to study nursing, forgoing a four-year school despite his academic qualifications. He graduated with a 3.25 GPA.
“People said, ‘Why don’t you go to a four-year institution when you have these advanced degrees?’” McDonnell said. “And I told them, ‘Because I think [CCRI is] a good school.’”
After four degrees and two careers, McDonnell believes he has found his path. “[Nursing] is a profession that slaps you in the face with what’s important in this world and what isn’t,” he said.