IES Abroad: As a student at Spelman College, how did you hear about IES Abroad and what motivated you to study abroad in Madrid?
Ambassador O’Neal: In the 1970s, study abroad was much less pursued than it is today. But when I decided to major in Spanish Language and Literature, I knew I needed to have a study abroad experience. I went to the Spanish Department Chair and asked her how I might achieve this. She very nonchalantly opened her drawer and pulled out an IES Abroad brochure. Spelman must have already had a close relationship with IES Abroad. Madrid was the best option for me, since at that time I had been interested in and studied primarily Spanish Literature.
IES Abroad: What are some of the most influential memories from your time in Madrid?
AO: I discovered the relevance of European history. I traveled to ancient and historic places, and became aware of a context I could not have discovered from Atlanta, or from Alabama where I grew up. I remember imagining when I visited Avila what it must have been like to live inside walls for protection. Another place that made a deep impression on me was the Alhambra Palace in Granada. The influence of Islamic Culture in Europe was something that I previously had no knowledge about. So, this was something that compelled me to study more. Many things I learned about while in Madrid and throughout my travels in Spain and Europe when I was a student remained pertinent to my activities and attitudes throughout my career as a diplomat. My time in Madrid was a very poignant political moment in Spain. The imminent death of the dictator spawned a palpable political unrest. It was an experience I could not have imagined and it helped me understand my country’s relative political stability. There were a lot of youth who protested calling for changes. The situation was quite politically volatile. I was a wide-eyed observer.
IES Abroad: How did you change the most during your time in Madrid? Did the experience shape your thinking in a profound way?
AO: Studying abroad made me strikingly aware of how much I didn’t know. It sparked in me a realization that the context in which I had grown up and lived so far was a very small one. There was so much more to be discovered, so many new possibilities of how I would or could lead my life. It was an opening to the world. This wasn’t the time of globalization, not like it is today, but I was able to perceive that my mentality was very provincial. Going abroad made me realize how much more there was to experience. I became particularly intrigued with the idea of speaking other languages and to understand them – even if I couldn’t speak them. The importance of speaking and understanding a local language was very forcefully revealed to me during my time in Madrid.
IES Abroad: You were enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Spanish and Portuguese Literature when you decided to change course and pursue a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. What led you to that decision?
AO: In my Ph.D. program, I was introduced to Portuguese. It was a requirement of the program that encompassed the literature of both languages, the Diaspora communities, and so forth. I was finding myself in the carrels of the library a lot. I was always doing something that was quiet and isolated. I felt very strongly that I wanted to use what I was doing to do something more than teach and conduct research. I had a strong urge to explore more. So, when the opportunity came to join the Foreign Service, I was compelled to pursue it. I was close to finishing my Ph.D., and my parents and friends urged me to hold off and finish first. They were probably right. My only regret is that I had not been further along by then, but I have no regrets whatsoever for taking the leap when I did.
IES Abroad: Were there lessons learned as a student in Madrid that helped you in the early days of your career as a diplomat?
AO: To sum it up, it was the discovery of active listening. It was the way that taking an interest in another’s point of view helps you to understand what is going on around you, and also helps you understand yourself. The value of perceiving the underlying motive, the reasons why people do what they do – this was something I took with me into my diplomatic career. Not all of my colleagues had learned that lesson, and I think they were less effective because of it. I learned that it is critically important to value another’s point of view and how that can lead to agreement and/or consensus.
IES Abroad: Leading up to your ambassadorial appointment, what was the most fulfilling assignment, project, or issue you worked on?
AO: All of my assignments were overwhelmingly fulfilling, but there are two that stand out. The first is my experience working with NGOs in Brazil. (1998-2001) Anthropologists say that NGOs came into being in Brazil. The U.S. Consulate worked with many of them, and one of the projects entailed bringing computers to the favelas, or slums. This opened a whole new world to impoverished children. Of course, the younger they were, the more adept they were. We were providing technology they would have otherwise have experienced much later. We believed this enhancement to their education directly addressed the culture of poverty in a positive way. My time in Mozambique (1996-98), a nation in Southern Africa, was another standout. We did a lot of work to promote women’s issues and women’s rights there. This was very well received by local women who, despite cultural and political repression demonstrated amazing intellect, entrepreneurial savvy and creativity. We took every opportunity to stand up on their behalf when they were not comfortable doing so on their own. For example, we selected women to undertake professional exchanges in the U.S. We organized visits allowing them to make professional contacts and gather expertise in their areas of interest. We understood that U.S. interlocutors could also learn from them—something that gave them an added source of pride. When they returned and shared their experiences with others, it elevated their social and professional status. We also provided grants to women’s organizations to allow them to participate more strongly in the political and economic landscape of the country.
IES Abroad: Just prior to your ambassadorial appointment, you were a Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of Michigan. What were your responsibilities – did you teach?
AO: At the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy of the University of Michigan, a former U.S. Ambassador, my own Ambassador from my time in Brazil, was already there lecturing. So, in addition to informal lecturing opportunities at Ohio State and University of Ohio, I focused instead on visiting as many colleges and universities I could to talk to students about pursuing careers in Foreign Affairs. I focused primarily on Foreign and Civil Service opportunities. A lot of students believed the selection process was too daunting to even try. I encouraged them to take the free exam, the first step in the process, to get a sense of what it entailed. They were surprised to learn that they could take the exam once a year at no cost while they made up their minds. Many students and local professionals who passed the test attended preparatory sessions with me to orient them to the remaining stages of the process. I will admit that selection into the Foreign Service is a lengthy and often slow process, but if one really wants to serve their country in this way, it is well worth the effort. Nearly half are not successful on the first try, so persistence can be rewarding. For a recent college graduate, the experience of the process is valuable in itself. The Department of State would like to have more good recruits, especially from the Midwest – the majority comes from East and West Coasts. I hoped that my efforts helped to awaken the idea of a career in Foreign Affairs to those who might not have considered it otherwise.
IES Abroad: What did it mean to you to become the U.S. Ambassador to Cabo Verde?
AO: I was very well positioned at that time for the opportunity. I had fluent Portuguese and a lot of experience in Lusophone countries. Even so, I was extremely honored and I recognized the privilege imparted to me with the position. In many other countries it is almost a given that diplomats who perform well become Ambassadors. But with 30% of U.S. Ambassadorships allotted to political appointments, this is not so for American diplomats. As the primary representative of my country in Cabo Verde, I took the responsibility seriously and I was pleased to represent American women and African Americans in the ranks of the diplomatic corps.
IES Abroad: What do you want to convey to Americans about Cabo Verdeans and vice versa?
AO: The Embassy offices and myself always tried to make Americans more aware of Cabo Verde. There are more Cabo Verdeans in the U.S. from the Diaspora than there are in the islands. Cabo Verde is a marvelous tourist destination. So, we actively supported American tourism. The Embassy strongly promoted U.S. investment in Cabo Verde and vice-versa. We recognized that big export companies looking for high revenues would have little interest in a place so small. But we envisioned opportunities for small businesses and experimental technology more likely. Of course, the language barrier could be a tremendous obstacle. We encouraged Cabo Verdeans to learn English and looked for ways to take advantage of Portuguese language teaching in the U.S. Higher education posed another opportunity for cross-cultural experiences. One of the best ways to be introduced to American culture and values is the experience of higher education in the U.S. The Embassy conducted educational advising with the goal of getting more Cabo Verdeans to apply to U.S. colleges and universities. We believed this would incite more and better political and economic partnerships.
IES Abroad: When you think back over your 30+ year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, what are you most proud of?
AO: I am very proud to have engaged in a profession that I believe truly matters. It is rewarding to have had the opportunity to learn from others and to give of myself personally and professionally. For me, it was the best career choice I could have made.
IES Abroad: Is there anything further you would like to tell us about any lasting impact of your time as a student in Madrid?
AO: I can honestly say that my year with IES Abroad changed the course of my life. From there, I was stricken with wanderlust, committed to study foreign languages, and I became far more comfortable with who I am in the world.