Strength in Foundation

Strength in Foundation

Now a reporter for CBS 12 News in West Palm Beach, Florida, Jay O’Brien ’13 remembers well making his first documentary while a sophomore at Suffield Academy. Co-produced by his friend and roommate Jay Fields ’13, the documentary explored John F. Kennedy’s famed 1962 speech “We Choose to Go to the Moon” [officially titled as the “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort”] and included faculty and staff interviews and student voice-overs. “This is all the stuff I do now in my job as a journalist,” explains Jay. “That was probably the first piece of television reporting I ever really did. In fact, the initial experiences I had as a student writing and editing videos were with Suffield’s Department of Marketing & Communications where I worked endlessly on a handful of videos trying to get them to perfection. That was actually the beginning of what would later become my career in journalism.

Today at age 26, Jay has since reported for a television station in Texas in addition to NBC News and MSNBC. He says Suffield Academy instilled in him a mindset of hard work and drive that helped lead to many remarkable experiences as a journalist, of which he is entirely grateful. In his job, he has interviewed the likes of entertainers and crooks to astronauts, political leaders, and cabinet secretaries. He has ridden escorted by President Trump’s motorcade and trekked through Bahamian towns obliterated by Hurricane Dorian. He was one of the first national reporters to air video showing the inside of Jeffrey Epstein’s home and has covered everything from the sadness and sobs at President George HW Bush’s burial to the cheers and celebrations at last year’s Super Bowl. Now every day he tells the stories of people living through an unprecedented pandemic, recognizing those who have lost everything and others who have discovered a new lease on life. And as a result, he even won an Emmy and a few other awards along the way. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, and I owe it all to the hard work and determination I learned at Suffield,” he says about his life and career. “Without Suffield Academy, I would never have experienced even half of that.”

The road leading Jay to the field of journalism was not necessarily a planned or predicted one, or at least not by him. After graduating from Suffield, Jay went to Ithaca College and studied television and radio. He says that Ann Selvitelli and the excellent college counseling staff at Suffield were the ones who encouraged him to apply to Ithaca, and that is where he found a passion for journalism. He explains, “For me, I stumbled upon my love for journalism in college. Had I not attended Ithaca I wouldn’t have known the first thing about reporting nor would I have ever ignited the very thing inside me that’s propelled my whole life forward. That’s where Suffield comes in. The college counseling staff put me on the path to Ithaca College which in turn led me to where I am now. Without their guidance, I wouldn’t be where or who I am today.”

While a student at Suffield, Jay admits he was—as all students are here—pushed and challenged academically at points but always dug deep to succeed in the subjects he was most passionate about. “Suffield afforded me the ability to pursue those passions with absolute drive and rigor,” he explains. “The school builds beneath its students a foundation of hard work and discipline and every success or failure is a tribute to its robust academic and fair programming. You know when you fall but you’ve learned how to get back up.” In recognizing his efforts, the faculty awarded him the Trinity College Book Prize for Citizenship along with the Theater Prize at Commencement, which he considers a true honor.

The theater program is admittedly a memorable and influential part of Jay’s Suffield experience. While he does not work in the theater industry today, he credits Director and Performing Arts Department Chair Tom Dugan with creating a safe, character-building environment in which students have the opportunity to grow and mature and project their own voice. “I spent most of my days in the PAC hanging out with friends or by myself enjoying that massive, stunning space. Theater inspired in me a sense of accomplishment and possibility, and I am grateful for Mr. Dugan who provided guidance to a kid who didn’t yet really know what he wanted out of the world.”

With his own family’s DNA baked into Suffield, the school was in Jay’s consciousness from a very young age. Jay is originally from Wethersfield, Connecticut, and his grandfather Steve Dellaquila ’56 grew up in Enfield as the youngest child of Italian immigrants. “Hoping to invest in Grandpa Steve’s education and eventually send him to college, my great grandmother and his sisters chose Suffield,” says Jay. “Before that nobody in the family had ever dreamed of going to college, and since then Suffield has held a special place in our hearts.” Jay’s mother Susan Dellaquila White ’84 also attended Suffield, along with his aunt Stephanie Greco ’88 and cousins Stephen ’21, Michael ’21, and Caroline Greco ’22. Now Jay’s younger sister Katie is a proud new member of the Class of 2024.

Suffield afforded me the ability to pursue those passions with absolute drive and rigor. The school builds beneath its students a foundation of hard work and discipline and every success or failure is a tribute to its robust academic and fair programming.

“Applying to Suffield Academy as a prospective student was the easiest decision I’ve ever made,” Jay insists. “When I closed my eyes and asked myself where I most felt at home the answer was obvious. I chose Suffield whole-heartedly, and we are lucky enough to be the family we are today thanks in large part to Suffield. One of my best memories is when my grandfather and former board member handed me my diploma at graduation. That was an incredible surprise and meaningful moment. My grandfather is beyond proud that he began this family tradition and legacy and is over-the-moon his grandkids followed suit. Our family recognizes that Suffield was integral in forming who we are and propelling us to where we went. In fact, to honor my grandfather our family created the Stephen J. Dellaquila Scholarship making it possible for students like my grandfather to enjoy the opportunity of a Suffield education. Members of my family who are Suffield graduates sit on the selection panel and take an active role in mentoring the recipient.”

Jay adds, “I think there are few places in our lives that provide safety merged with challenges—that perfect blend of being in and out of your comfort zone at the same time. It’s like walking on a tightrope while knowing there’s a net below you. Suffield is that net. It’s an opportunity to grow and learn while feeling supported. A lot of us have to try on a few hats before we’re certain of who we are. Suffield provides the necessary challenges but also the solid footing to help young people figure out their identity.”

In addition to its intentional blend of rigor and encouragement, Suffield is known for its sense of community and warmth, where students form lifelong friendships from all corners of the globe. Jay’s experience was not any different. “I had the best friends in the world at Suffield,” he says, “who are still large parts of my life to this day. Aside from that, Suffield teaches you how to rise to the occasion. For those fortunate enough to get the Suffield experience, you will be tested; that is very clear. You are either living away from home, thrust into a demanding academic setting, challenged on the athletic field or stage, or all of the above. So much of my job today is rising to the moment and making sure a story, an interview, or even a sentence doesn’t pass me by. Suffield plants that ability in its students and nurtures them until it grows. Only when you leave do you understand how many opportunities both academically and personally were right there at your fingertips.”

As Suffield entered remote learning to conclude its 2020 spring term, Jay agreed to participate in an ongoing college-to-career discussion series hosted virtually by Suffield’s Offices of Alumni Development and College Counseling. The SuffieldConnect program invites alums to speak with interested students about their careers, college major choices, and experiences at Suffield. The goal of the events is to expose current students to life beyond Suffield and provide guidance from alumni professionals working in specific fields. The mentoring sessions provide insight into the many unanswered questions rising seniors encounter as they navigate this important chapter of their lives. During the talks, it is often made very clear that communication is a key to success and that there is more than one way to accomplish a rewarding future.

Jay provided advice on making the most of opportunities, working hard, and pursuing passionate interests. “At Ithaca, I found television and journalism and that led me to discover my path,” he noted. “Where you go to college and what you open yourself up to can really impact your life. I was lucky enough to be a television and radio major. There are some people you may know at Suffield who seem to already have their entire lives planned out, but I was certainly not one of those people. I followed what I was passionate about and fell into the job I love. You get into this field of journalism because once you discover it you cannot picture yourself doing anything else. You believe that what you’re doing ties our democracy together with sound information and our humanity together by telling stories of the human experience. It is not glamorous work and I often eat my dinners from the passenger seat of a news car, but there’s a drive in every journalist to tell a good story, to tell a story that matters and hopefully changes lives.

For all of you who think that life is all about connections, you are somewhat right and somewhat wrong. Yes, connections can help get you through the door, but don’t convince yourself your connections are an excuse for not caring or having grit. Take Suffield’s championed motto to heart: Esse Quam Videri—To be rather than to seem.”