A version of this story originally appeared in our 2023 newsletter. View other featured stories
When he arrived at Anoka Technical College in 2019, Tony Acker ’21 hadn’t been in a classroom for two decades.
“I looked around and I felt old. I was old. I was 42,” Tony says. “Besides going to school with my boys, I hadn’t stepped foot in a classroom since 1998.”
But the CNC Manufacturing Technology graduate and father of three pushed aside his doubts. He was ready for a professional change and up for the challenge. After all, the last decade of his life was full of challenges.
The rug is pulled out
Twenty years before arriving at Anoka Tech, Tony started his career as an information technology professional. That same year, he started a life with his wife, Lynn. The two expanded their family in the years that followed, welcoming three boys between 2001 and 2003.
As Tony puts it, “everything was going well until the rug was pulled out from underneath us.”
In June of 2007, Lynn was diagnosed with cancer. The family was now faced with the huge tasks of managing medical treatments, bills and helping one another make sense of these life-changing circumstances.
“I tried to give my boys the best life I could under the stressful circumstances we were navigating as a family, Tony says.
Eight years after her diagnosis, in April 2015, Lynn entered hospice care, aiming to make the most of her time with her family in the comfort of her home. She lost her battle with cancer in September 2015.
The next few years were an adjustment for Tony. He’d lost the future he envisioned, growing old with Lynn as they shared a ride on the rollercoaster of parenting. Now, he was the sole parent in the household, assuming responsibility for keeping lights on, plates full and lives moving forward.
Learning new tricks
The next four years of Tony’s life felt like a broken record. A work-from-home IT professional, his days became repetitive and he found himself in a rut that stressed him out and put him on edge.
“With my previous job, I was completely stressed out because I worked at home. My work was always there. The stress was leading to short tempers with my youngest, Tony says. “I knew what I needed was something to make my life better, relieve my stress and provide my boys a better life.
“I figured while my life seemed to be all turned upside down and inside out, why not go back to school and see if this old dog could learn new tricks.”
So, in 2019, he quit a job he’d held for 20 years and enrolled in the CNC Manufacturing program at Anoka Tech.
Persevering and succeeding
Despite his fears on that first day in class, Tony succeeded academically, finding himself a place on the President’s Honor Roll – a distinction indicating a student, enrolled in 12 or more credits, has achieved a grade point average of 4.0.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, closures and a transition to online learning shifted Tony’s confidence.
“I started to second guess my decision to go back to school,” he says. “But I overcame the fear of going back to school and the fear of online classes. I weathered my first two years.
“The death of my spouse pushed me into this new adventure and I was going to see it through until the end.”
Through another three semesters, much of it hybrid learning with lectures online and hands-on labs taught on campus, Tony persevered and completed his degree.
“I was over the moon when I walked out on my last day of school. It was December 8, 2021,” he says. “ I walked outside looking up at the sky, it was a bright sunny day. I knew my wife was watching me, cheering me on, pushing me from day one.”
Stress – not income – levels decline
Through scholarships and an employer-provided tuition reimbursement program at Anoka-based manufacturer Mate Precision Technology, Tony graduated from Anoka Tech debt free.
“Financial-wise, I'm making about 13 bucks an hour more now than I was with the other job,” he says.
Transitioning to a career in manufacturing has helped Tony rebalance his personal and professional life. “I don’t have the stress of work following me. When the bell rings, I leave,” he says.
With time and space, he’s taking on new hobbies and looking toward a future of travel and new adventure.
“I bought my first motorcycle last February,” Tony says. “I’d never ridden before last year. All these things that I couldn’t do before, I can do now.”