Ambassador Adrienne O’Neal: Building Bridges Between U.S. and Cape Verde

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Cape verde AmbassadorShe’s lived and worked all over the world. The life of a career member of the Foreign Service, can be a seemingly glamorous one—but it is also a very important role. And Adrienne S. O’Neal takes her job very seriously.

Now as Ambassador to the Republic of Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking island nation about 300 miles off the west coast of Africa, she brings not only her experience but a quest to learn as much as she can about her new home. Confirmed October 18, 2011, Ambassador O’Neal has the rank of Minister Counselor, Cape Verde.

Prior to coming to Cape Verde, O´Neal literally traveled around the globe. Previous assignments have included Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon;  Director of the Office of Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy for Europe and Eurasian Affairs;  Principal Officer at the consulate general in Rio de Janeiro;  and Deputy Press Secretary to the Director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House.  O´Neal, who joined the Foreign Service in 1983, has served overseas in other assignments in Italy, Argentina, and Mozambique.

From 2007 to 2009, Ambassador O’Neal, who has one son, was Diplomat in Residence at the University of Michigan. She returned to the State Department in Washington, DC, and served as the Director of the Senior Level Division of Career Development and Assignments in Human Resources from 2009 to 2011.

O´Neal, who is a resident of Michigan, received a B.A. in business administration and Spanish from Spelman College and an M.M.L. in Spanish language and literature from Middlebury College.

So how did a Durham, North Carolina-born, New Orleans-reared girl wind up being an international diplomat? She tells TNJ.com.
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TNJ:  It marks a year since your appointment, what has been your most rewarding accomplishments thus far?

Adrienne S. O’Neal: One of the most important achievements was getting the MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation] component signed.  There had been opposition to it on the Hill, even before I came to Cape Verde.  It looked like it might not happen, but luckily it was passed. To have come here without the MCC would have been more challenging. The goal of MCC is to fight global poverty.
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TNJ:  What were some of your first impressions when coming to Cape Verde last year?

O´Neal: I have never lived on an island before, so it is very different for me. CV is a very unique place. I am enjoying the environment, being able to swim in the sea. But what struck me the most is how much there is in common with African Americans. African Americans and Cape Verdeans are the same. There is a shared history. I was surprised when I visited Cidade Velha and learned it was an important slave trading port. And I learned how the Cape Verdeans came to be here. If we can develop this connection, between the two cultures—this is something I look forward to trying to achieve.

TNJ: You have lived in several countries throughout your career, what do you miss the most about home?

O´Neal: For me, home is where you are. I have liked every place I have been; if you put down roots, they tend to linger.
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TNJ:  What are some of your future goals for Cape Verde?

O´Neal: One of the things I want to do is to increase the cultural exchange. The mission has been doing a very good job, but I really want to use Cape Verdeans who live in America to come and exchange their experiences with the Cape Verdeans here. Many people here have a view of America but they don´t really know America. I think if we tap into the resource of Cape Verdean immigrants, there will be a better understanding here about America. So I want to create a bridge with the Cape Verdeans living in the Diaspora to communities here. Also, I think the African American experience and the Cape Verdeans have a very similar and shared heritage. If we can develop a relationship between the two, that would be amazing.
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TNJ: What are some of your personal future goals?

O´Neal: I have become more spiritually oriented. I am of the belief that where I am is where I am supposed to be. I have learned to live in the moment. I also want to make the relationship between Cape Verde and the U.S. stronger. I want what I do to have meaning, to matter.
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TNJ:  What is the most challenging part of your job?

O´Neal: We are looking for niches for American investment. Large American corporations want to develop and see a high return. You just can not do that here in Cape Verde; it´s too small. So we are trying to find investment opportunities and we´re chipping away at it. There are a number of issues I want to tackle–poverty, education. We have increased the American embassy here by 50 percent–we went from five Americans to 11 Americans. So because we are bigger, I feel we have to work harder and accomplish more.

TNJ:  Why do you feel not very many African Americans venture to Cape Verde?

O´Neal: They don´t understand each other, and many Americans–not just African American–don´t know what Cape Verde has to offer. But speaking of African Americans, African Americans and Cape Verdeans are the same. We share the same slave experience. [The Portuguese colonists in Cape Verde took slaves from the African Mainland to develop the land.]
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TNJ: You graduated from Spelman. Would you encourage Cape Verdeans looking to study in the U.S. that they consider an HBCU?

O´Neal:  It would be a great fit. We are working to encourage more students to study in the United States and have developed our educational component over the years–we have an in-house reference center for students and we have a website with various educational resouces. We are trying to encourage Cape Verdeans who go to the United States to study to look beyond Boston. Of course it still does come down to funding. This is something we are working toward, to have more funding and scholarship opportunities.
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TNJ:  Do you remain connected to Spelman? If so, how? If not, why?

O´Neal: Some of my mentors at the State Department have come out of Spelman.
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TNJ:  What is the most rewarding part of your job?

O´Neal: Knowing that my work is appreciated.