Student for life: Joseph Yacono III, Class of 2012
Joseph Yacono III — cancer survivor, state trooper and 2012 FDU graduate — is all smiles this past Christmas surrounded by his family, daughter Alyson (left), wife Lorie and son Joe (right).
By Kenna Caprio
Fairleigh Dickinson University graduate student Joseph Yacono III did not anticipate donning a cap and gown and marching at commencement.
And yet, he found himself on the Metropolitan Campus at the Graduate Salute in mid-April picking up that cap and gown.
“Commencement is not for me — it’s more for my family and friends,” says Yacono. “As a student, the achievements come when you get the grade.”
Academic achievements came a little later in life for Yacono, a 45-year-old cancer survivor, state trooper, army veteran and Pitman, N.J. resident.
“Our school, Fairleigh Dickinson, opened my eyes to the importance of education,” says Yacono. “I thought life experience was more important than ‘wasting money’ on reading books and sharing ideas with others. Man, was I arrogant.”
Yacono’s journey back to the classroom started several years ago as he and his wife Lorie sat down to discuss the future. While making a checklist for retirement — New Jersey state troopers are required to retire at the age of 55 — Yacono realized that he did not see himself “anywhere without an education,” he says. “My wife challenged me to go back to school.”
Wife Lorie has an accounting degree from what was Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, daughter Alyson studies physical therapy at University of the Sciences and son Joe majors in mechanical engineering at Drexel University.
“(I was the) only person without a degree, and we’re very competitive here,” says Yacono laughing.
Around the time Yacono resolved to go back to school, Roger Kane — FDU’s Director of Petrocelli College Transfer Student Services — spoke at the local police barracks about the Bachelor of Arts in individualized studies.
The B.A. individualized studies degree offers students the opportunity to study at 55 locations throughout New Jersey. Classes are held at state police barracks, community colleges and National Guard buildings. Most students are “service providers,” working as law enforcement officers, state troopers, firemen, and emergency medical technicians or are in the military or homeland security fields, says Kane. Students in the program usually enter with some college credits, either looking to finish their degrees in an effort to move up in their careers or are planning to retire and work in a different sector.
Fairleigh Dickinson University had three important things Yacono was looking for: satellite learning locations, online classes and a manageable cost.
“We try to make the transition back into school and going to school as simple as possible so that they can run their jobs, lives and family and just go to school,” says Kane.
But for Yacono, enrolling in classes would prove to be harder than just picking up the phone or registering online.
Not long after he decided to hit the books, he encountered a major health setback.
Diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma — a form of skin cancer — in 2007, Yacono’s plans for higher education had to wait. The cancer, which appeared on the base of his tongue and lymph nodes, forced Yacono to undergo a total of three surgeries in four weeks. Doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, who were pioneering Trans-Oral Robotic Surgery, treated Yacono. During the surgeries, doctors removed 20 lymph nodes and Yacono underwent 32 radiation sessions. He had a feeding tube for three months.
“You think you’re going to die,” says Yacono of being that sick. “And when you’re a trooper you feel like you’re never going to die.”
Yacono’s memory also suffered during his illness and he took to writing everything down to remember it.
Still, Lorie didn’t give up on Yacono returning to school, giving him the nudge he needed. “My wife said, ‘You have to show your kids that you can do it at any age and (that it takes) a little bit of hard work to achieve your dreams,’” he says.
As Yacono’s recovery progressed, his health improved and so did his prognosis. “I accepted the challenge to enroll at FDU in the fall of 2010,” says Yacono. He graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in individualized studies in the summer of 2011 and will graduate with his MAS, master’s of administrative science, this May.
“My tunnel vision has opened to a newly improved wide-angle lens,” he says of his education and diagnosis. “I see life more clearly with my faith, lessons learned from fellow classmates, and some wonderful professors.”
In fact, the cancer diagnosis informed Yacono’s choice of a master’s program and thoughts for his post-trooper career.
“Cancer kind of shaped me into who I am today,” says the graduate student.
The civil servant wants to continue to help people after retiring from the force. “I think my education will help me be able to advocate for cancer patients, in human resources or as a patient’s advocate.” During his time at Penn, he appreciated the close connection between the hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And in considering his future, he thinks of those kids at CHOP who haven’t yet traveled the world or had their own family.
“I want to take the burden from my mind and help somebody else,” says a humble Yacono.
“I see a little bit of myself in Joe,” admits adjunct professor George Wren, a retired state trooper. Wren taught Yacono in a leadership development seminar and says Yacono is interested in “gaining the insight about the people around him, and that’s good quality,” says Wren.
Yacono’s degrees, Kane notes, will help advance him as a trooper and provide a path for him after retirement. When evaluating and promoting their troopers, the state police take into account educational background.
“Joe is just a home run,” says Kane.
But Yacono may not see it that way, instead choosing to describe himself as “not really flashy.” He is content to have completed his degrees and to apply his global education to life and work.
“Now I’m not afraid to retire from my job and now I feel like I have something to hold on to,” says Yacono of graduating. “It’s an important part of life, shaping your education.”
And, oh yes, the FDU alum is cancer-free as he approaches the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis on June 7. Home run indeed.
Yacono and wife Lorie pose for a picture in front of the view of Old City on a trip to Israel.