BSW graduate Donny Conner serves others as Marine, chef and social worker

Donny Conner, bald man with dark beard, leans against table while smiling widely

Donny Conner graduated in December with a BSW. During the commencement ceremony, he led his classmates as student marshal. This month, Conner began working as a vocational support specialist with the Succeed Program. He’s also pursuing an MSW at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As December’s commencement ceremony at the University of Missouri–St. Louis approached, Donny Conner couldn’t believe where he found himself.

Conner had worked hard to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and would lead his classmates as student marshal during the ceremony. Still, it didn’t feel real.

A humble person in the habit of keeping his head down, he was caught off guard when faculty members in the School of Social Work asked if he would be interested in serving as the student marshal for the BSW program. He was so surprised that he double checked his grades before accepting the ceremonial position.

“I’m very honored to have been selected for that position,” Conner said. “I’m the first person to go to school in my family, so it’s a really great honor that I was not expecting. It really did take me by surprise.”

But it had been no mistake.

Conner applied the discipline and focus he developed in the United States Marine Corps infantry and later in high-end kitchens as a chef to his studies. This month, he’s seeing the results of those efforts as he embarks on a new career in social work as a student support specialist with the Succeed Program. In addition to his new position, he will also begin working toward an MSW at UMSL.

Despite his recent success in the classroom, Conner was not so fond of school growing up in south St. Louis. After graduating from Bishop DuBourg High School in 2007, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Several of Conner’s family members served in the U.S. Army, but that wasn’t the primary factor in his decision to join the military.

“I was just getting through high school,” Conner said. “I ended up going through to the military right after because one of my really close friends from high school was going, and I didn’t want him to be cooler than me.”

Conner jokes that he didn’t want his friend to be cooler, but really, he was worried about him going through the Marine Corps’ infamously difficult training alone. Fresh out of high school, the two friends shipped out to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego for boot camp.

“I don’t think it was until after I got out, where I was like, ‘Boy, now I understand why Marines have this crazy reputation,’” he said of the experience.

After boot camp, Conner’s infantry unit was mobilized for back-to-back overseas deployments. In 2008, he served in Iraq and was sent to Afghanistan the next year. Upon returning stateside, he finished his four-year commitment at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and was eventually discharged at the rank of corporal.

“It was a good four years of my life, and I would do it again if given the chance,” Conner said.

His time in the military provided valuable lessons in leadership and prepared Conner for success in civilian life. Many of the values he still prioritizes today are exemplified by an acronym that Marines are expected to memorize – JJ DID TIE BUCKLE, or justice, judgment, dependability, integrity, decisiveness, tact, initiative, endurance, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty and enthusiasm.

“I’m very glad that I went into the military first,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty ambitious, but I never had the self-control or the discipline to really take on school. It was really good for me because before I was mature enough to handle school, I didn’t put any value in it. I think by allowing myself time in the military to grow up before entering school, I was able to build those skills.”

But Conner first took a detour in the culinary world before going back to school.

After returning to St. Louis, he began cooking at a Mexican cantina in St. Louis County and quickly worked his way up the ladder to assistant kitchen manager. From there, he broke into fine dining, working at restaurants such as Blood and Sand, Brasserie by Niche and Central Table.

Over the course of five years, Conner had taken on more responsibilities in the kitchen and advanced his career. He reasoned that it was time to pursue a degree if he wanted to advance further and enrolled in the culinary arts program at St. Louis Community College – Forest Park.

It wasn’t easy to balance the demands of a full-time job and school, but the Marine Corps had prepared him – mentally and physically – for the challenge.

“Luckily, I was still kind of in the prime of my life because those were really long days,” he said. “I scheduled it so that I would continue to work in the evenings and on the weekends, while going to school in the morning.”

Conner accepted a position as executive chef after earning his associate degree, but the experience wasn’t what he imagined. The restaurant wasn’t ready for the volume of diners it was serving, and there were constant staffing issues. The two-year stint shook his belief in cooking. However, after leaving, he took a job at Louie, the acclaimed Italian restaurant in Clayton’s DeMun neighborhood, which reinvigorated him.

Unfortunately, just as Conner found joy in cooking again, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It upended industries across the globe but had a particularly acute effect on restaurants. Suddenly out of work, Conner had an abundance of time to reevaluate his priorities and “doom scroll.”

He had already contemplated going back to school again for a bachelor’s degree, and the pandemic led him to consider social work.

“There are so many travesties in this world, and there are so many people who need an extra hand,” Conner said. “Injustices were wild at that time – very pointed. One day it just kind of clicked. I talked to my grandma about it, and she immediately perked up. She really reaffirmed my idea.”

The reputation of the School of Social Work drew Conner to UMSL, and his first class with Teaching Professor Linda Wells-Glover confirmed that he was on the right path.

“I was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be. This feels right for me,’” he said.

Throughout his time in the BSW program, Conner felt fortunate to be surrounded by supportive, like-minded mentors such as Wells-Glover. The program’s coursework also opened his eyes to perspectives and inequities he hadn’t been exposed to previously.

He was especially excited to complete his practicum requirements with UMSL’s Succeed Program as a teacher’s assistant and social coach for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“With these practicums that I’ve had, it just reaffirmed everything,” Conner said. “I’ve gotten a lot of personal reward, along with working on professional development.”

Conner also began working as a VA study worker at the Veterans Center to hone his administrative skills before graduating. He will now continue to put those skills to use on campus as a student support specialist with the Succeed Program.

Conner said he will be focused on the vocational pillar of the program, working with Career Services on campus and organizations off campus to help find jobs for Succeed students. It’s a role where he can utilize his talents “on the ground level” – something impressed upon him in the military.

Down the road, Conner would like to work in counseling or therapy after completing his MSW. But for now, he will continue to do what he’s done in some capacity most of his life: serve others in his community.

“Everything’s kind of wrapped up into one place,” he said. “I can really build a community. I’m very excited to work with Succeed because the people that I went and did practicum with are doing their second practicum next semester, and it just feels like it’s a prime environment to really make some good change.”

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