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Casey O’Neil

Casey O'Neil

Senior Consultant for the U.S. Department of State

Alexandria, Virginia

International Business and European Studies majors 2009

One lesson from Seattle Pacific University stands out to Casey O’Neil ’09. It has helped him network, adapt to foreign countries, excel in his job as a senior consultant for the U.S. Department of State — and win board games.

“It’s so valuable to always look at a situation from the other side’s perspective,” O’Neil says. “It has helped me with the work environment here but also with friend relationships and classroom relationships — it’s much easier to engage the concerns of the other side when you can stop and look at it.”

That lesson was embedded in SPU’s classes and extracurricular activities, O’Neil says, and he puts it to use in his current job as a senior consultant for the State Department’s Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism. There, he works with a team that negotiates agreements with other countries’ governments to help prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials, which could be turned into dangerous weapons. To help imlement these agreements, he conducts research, including travel to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. He helps develop proposals to advance joint efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to smuggling across the borders of those countries.

This work is important because terrorists could wreak a lot of havoc with dirty bombs or improvised nuclear devices, O’Neil says. He points out that President Obama highlighted this threat during his Prague speech in 2009, saying, “We must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”

O’Neil’s job doesn’t always look the way people expect it to, he says. It tends to resemble more group-oriented problem-solving and less the James Bond-style missions that some people assume.
“When I first started, some people thought I was personally working with radioactive material. Others had the image that I was traveling the world confronting terrorists. Thankfully, neither of these are accurate,” he says. “Counter-nuclear-smuggling work is a team effort, involving the efforts of experts, analysts, scientists, law enforcement personnel, diplomats, and many others.”

But the high-powered job doesn’t keep O’Neil from having fun. One of his hobbies is game night — a tradition that began at Seattle Pacific. Fellow alumni Alex Steers McCrum ’09 and Christalyn Steers McCrum ’10 have been friends with O’Neil since SPU.

In those get-togethers, O’Neil’s understated, observant personality stands out.

“Casey is sneaky,” says Alex. “You think he’s in it for the fun, and he is —”

“He’s a good sport,” Christalyn adds.

“He’s in it to host the people, to bring drinks around, to order some pizza, get everybody laughing and talking, and next thing you know he’s so close to winning that you’re in serious trouble,” Alex says. “We’ve played a bunch of games together, and he’s trickier than he lets on.”

O’Neil’s current job materialized through a roundabout path. In high school, he worked as a travel agent; that work experience led him to help plan trips for SPU’s Department of French and Francophone studies, where he majored (along with international business). It also led him to an internship at the White House, where he helped plan trips for President George W. Bush and his family.

“I thought I wanted to start my own travel agency,” he says. “Interning at the White House would provide a good backstory for clients.”

His own travel agency never materialized after college; instead, O’Neil’s first job after graduation was at an insurance agency, where he worked six months before he realized his employer was scamming customers by lying to its agents about services offered. He decided he had had enough of the insurance business and left for graduate school at Pepperdine University, where he studied international relations and economics for a master of public policy degree.

Networks and relationships like the ones he invested in at Seattle Pacific are powerful tools, O’Neil says — maybe more important than his skills training in business, French, and international relations.
“I thought life would be like college — if you passed the test, you were good to go,” he says. “But the test isn’t so much subject matter as who you know.”

From his freshman year, O’Neil was eager to travel and learn about different cultures, and SPU gave him that opportunity. He signed up for his second French class because he “didn’t want to miss the fun,” says Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Michelle Beauclair. When he traveled with Beauclair and a group of students on Seattle Pacific’s first study abroad trip to Paris, he was eager to help coordinate trip logistics.

“He was so well traveled and interested in travel — he was so helpful,” she says.
He also traveled on the department’s second trip to Paris, then traveled from graduate school at Pepperdine to help coordinate an SPU study abroad trip to Europe. In 2012, he worked as Seattle Pacific’s on-site coordinator for a study abroad trip to Guatemala.

In learning to look from others’ perspectives, O’Neil has taken SPU’s motto of “Engaging the Culture, Changing the World,” an extra step. He engages not just with the culture, but with many cultures, Beauclair says.

“You can’t be an effective ambassador while coming in with an American perspective and only speaking English. And that’s something that has been self-evident to Casey,” Beauclair says. “He not only listens well, but he also really hears what people are saying.”

— Ruth Moon Mari

Casey O'Neil
Photo by Stephen Voss

How does your time at SPU connect to the work you’re doing today?

I try to remain mindful of SPU’s encouragement to “engage the culture, change the world.” I have seen time and time again that more can be accomplished when we understand the perspective of those with whom we engage — be they friends, adversaries, coworkers, foreign officials, or family.

Who made a difference in your SPU education?

Dr. Michelle Beauclair encouraged me to study abroad, taught me a foreign language, introduced me to foreign cultures, helped me navigate graduate school, and remains a close friend to this day. I don’t know where I would be without her positive influence.

What advice do you have for students about life after graduation?

Respect is valuable, and personal connections are vital. Be flexible with God’s plan for your life, surround yourself with a strong community, and enjoy the adventure.

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