Student Spotlight

Vincent O’Neil ’26 Finding Community in Albany

Vincent O’Neil ’26

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Vincent O’Neil ’26 had what he calls a typical middle-class upbringing. He grew up in Wisconsin and enjoyed school but had a rebellious streak.

At 13, he started using drugs and alcohol. Many of the men in his family struggle with alcoholism or addiction in some form, he said. Quickly, O’Neil found that he faced a similar plight. From 13 to age 27, he had several run-ins with the law. After bouts in and out of jail, being on probation, struggling in school, and eventually dropping out, working various jobs, and crashing on friend’s couches, he served his longest sentence — 10 months incarcerated in 2017. Following his release, he was at a crossroads of moving east and starting over or moving with his parents, who were relocating to Nevada. 

Moving in with his parents in Nevada ended up being the right decision, he said and was the start of his path to Albany Law School. 

Today, he is four years sober and moving into the next chapter of his life, which he initially did not think was possible. 

O’Neil credits his professors and the experience of his 12-step recovery program with giving him a foundation to start to turn his life around. 

“My father got sober when I was 16, and he did AA, and I thought, well, maybe something like that will work for me. I'm really grateful he planted that seed in my head. A big thing at 12-step programs is they don't promote, and they don't because they don't want outside influence, so it’s hard to know about them unless you hear from someone who has gone through it,” he said. “Since then, my entire life has changed from putting down the drug. That was in September 2019.”


While working the program, O’Neil was enrolled in a one course at a local technical college, hoping to ease back into learning and determine whether  that was the right next step.

“So, I had enrolled in one class at a technical college. My whole thing was that it wasn't the drugs. It was always everybody else. It was everybody else and everything else. It was every institution against me,” he said. “I'm grateful that my teacher kept me in class. Even when I wasn't in the right mindset, I got clean, and I really liked learning. I really liked being in that environment. When you're using stuff that's illegal, you don't go out much. You don't associate with many people, so you just don't feel safe anywhere. I finally felt like I was safe, and I realized how much I liked learning. I finished that first class, and the next semester, I took three classes, and then I went full-time, and I got my associate’s and went on to get my bachelor's all while in Nevada.”

During  the last semester of his associate’s program, one of his sociology professors said he might consider law school.

“The thought pattern, the material he was having us read, really ignited a passion in me. I initially wanted to go back to school and become a special education teacher, then maybe be a school administrator. But as I was seeing how attorneys and the law worked in certain ways—and not just people in courtrooms—and some lawyers do things beyond what I expected they did,” he said.

When it came time to think about a law school, he weighed his prior experiences with experiences he still hoped to have. Albany Law School fit the bill. 

“I didn't want to go to a big school. I wanted to do public service with an environmental focus, but I knew that I didn't want to go to a big school, but I at least wanted to be around the big schools because around the big schools, big things happen and I can be a part of that. I liked the Northeast, and it reminds me of home. Albany reminds me a lot of Madison and Green Bay, Wisconsin,” he said. “It seemed like a solid choice. And I'm really glad I came here because I've had a lot of support. I know that in my personal statement, I talk a lot about my addiction and my legal issues, and all the challenges and adversity I've faced. And I know that some places probably aren't ready to accept  or support that. And I'm glad  I found Albany because it seems like I've been fully supported here with everything and anything I want to do,” he said.

He began with the Lean Into Success Program, a collaborative pre-Orientation experience for first-generation students and students from historically excluded communities. The program is a combined effort of the Offices of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and Admissions.


“I acknowledge that I'm using white privilege. I have to be in this space to show that this space is meant for people who are like me but also people of color, people who suffer from substance use disorder, and people who have been formerly incarcerated. I'm super excited that there's room for all these conversations at this school because I don’t think my experience would be the same without even just the room for the conversation. But I mean, here, it's supported. And that's what I want the legal system to be is a diverse working class of people. The law affects all of it. It doesn't only affect one group,” he said. 

When thinking about a career, a lingering worry of his past having an impact always looms, but many professional fields—especially law—have been surprisingly accepting, he said. 

“I’ve been surprised to learn how holistic some professional fields are. With law, it seems very holistic, and they seem very open to this. The more I researched it, I thought: wow, I think this could be for me, this could be something that I could do and this could be super beneficial to me,” he said. 

Three U.S. states – Kansas, Mississippi, and Texas – and one U.S. territory, The Northern Mariana Islands, ban felons from practicing law in their jurisdictions. In all areas, there is no restriction as long as the individual can demonstrate the requirements of character and fitness. 
Post-graduation, he’s open to any opportunities, but he is finding a particular interest in environmental law. 

“Looking back at what I enjoyed in childhood and what I enjoyed growing up in Wisconsin and later, what I experienced in Nevada and now here in Albany. I think the stark difference in Wisconsin to Nevada really put into play what environment looks like, what nature around us looks like, how we use resources, who gets to allocate those resources, who gets to access those resources, the quality of those resources,” he said.

He does feel a pull toward criminal justice reform too, but knows that his compassionate and empathetic nature might cause a quick burnout. Instead, he says, he’d like to focus on making the world a better place—for everyone. 

“When I see a company destroying land and not being held responsible for it, I get enraged. I get a gut-wrenching feeling inside me that I cannot let go of. And that's just where it all comes from. Just accountability of people who destroy land or who use our resources negligently. There are all these other problems they keep building. It's not sustainable whatsoever. I can still help people with environmental law. I am trying to blend the ideas  that I would like to help out my fellow men and women who are suffering from what I'm suffering from. I think I can help them in another way and have safe, clean land for them to come back to when they're ready.”