Building a foundation for future generations

by Matt Jardin  |   

Photo of Kate O'Neill

After taking her first step into the wider world by traveling to Argentina as an exchange student at age 14, alumna Kate O’Neill, M.A. Interdisciplinary Studies ’98, has taken on Peace Corps assignments in Kiribati and Jamaica, and has lived in Guatemala, Japan and the
United Arab Emirates with her husband and three children. She currently serves as an associate professor of management at the
American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. (Photo courtesy of Kate O’Neill)

How does a Seawolf end up as a professor halfway around the world? For interdisciplinary studies alumna Kate O’Neill, associate professor of management at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, it all started at the dinner table.

Even though she considers herself an Alaskan, O’Neill was born and raised in Vermont where her mother was a nurse at a small college with a thriving community of international students. According to O’Neill, her mother went above and beyond treating students who were homesick by inviting them to her house for home-cooked meals, which ignited O’Neill’s curiosity for the world.

“I quite literally grew up with the world around my dinner table,” said O’Neill. “Although I didn’t hear the term until later in my life, there was always a sense of global citizenship at my house. Everybody I knew was from a different part of the world and had traveled all around the world. So just seeing that’s what people do, that’s what I did.”

O’Neill took her first step into the wider world by traveling to Argentina as an exchange student when she was 14. Since then, O’Neill has taken on Peace Corps assignments in Kiribati and Jamaica and has lived in Guatemala, Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with her husband and three children.

Between Peace Corps assignments, O’Neill temporarily bucked her trend for living abroad by spending some time in Alaska. Here in the Last Frontier, O’Neill met her husband and traveling companion who decided to complete his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UAA before setting out on their next adventure. While she waited, O’Neill joined him on campus by pursuing a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on adult education.

“Though I didn’t know it at the time, these ideas about the systemic nature of organizations, human interaction, culture, communication, the ways education can be a social justice activity and leadership as a discipline, initially came out of the field of adult education,” said O’Neill. “It wasn’t until a year into my Ph.D. that I realized what I was doing was a continuation of the program I did my master’s in, and all these foundational concepts I was introduced to at UAA was work I was continuing on under different names.”

After living in the UAE, O’Neill and her family decided to move to Iowa to give her children their first taste of living in the U.S. Seemingly as quickly as they returned stateside, O’Neill accepted her current teaching position at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

“I’m fortunate that I get to see another side of Afghanistan. I get to see what I think is the majority of the country, which is people just like the rest of us who get up every day to go to work, send their kids to school and want a better life for their kids,” said O’Neill. “Then there are the folks striving to move forward in their careers, so after working all day they go to school all night for their M.B.A. My graduate students are working hard for an Afghanistan of peace and prosperity. They’re not focusing on the past, they’re looking toward the future.”

As a professor, O’Neill’s primary goal is to help lay a foundation for critical thinking and open dialogue for her students, as opposed to the more memorization-driven education she considers to still be prevalent around the world.

“For all my students, whether it’s in the U.S., Japan, Afghanistan or the UAE, my job is to give them an option in addition to more traditional forms of education,” said O’Neill. “Really what I'm motivated by is not to say what or how people should think, but to provide people with the notion that they should be able to critique the way things are so that they can make their own decision. I’m not here to make any moral, social, political or cultural judgments — this is not my country and I am a guest here. I’m here simply to give them the tools to analyze their own lives and society and make a decision if this is truly the life and society they want.”

O’Neill points to her time teaching in the UAE as a blueprint for what she hopes will happen in Kabul. When she first moved to the UAE, many of its leadership positions were outsourced to foreign consultants. Over time and after increased investment in the education of its future leaders, many of those key decision making roles are once again occupied by UAE citizens. 

After all, in addition to seeing firsthand, the long-term effects education can have on shaping a generation, O’Neill credits her own education for turning her wanderlust into something that can leave a lasting impact.

“I really am grateful for the education I got at UAA and how it became a launchpad and put me on this trajectory,” said O’Neill. “Had I been someplace else, my life would have taken a very different path from the one it did, both outlook-wise and career-wise.”

 

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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