An Interview with Ambassador Adrienne O’Neal

Adrienne O’Neal, MA Spanish ’77 served in a variety of positions with the U.S. State Department from 1983 until 2015, when she retired as U.S. ambassador to Cape Verde. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama; earned a BA degree from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia; and received an MA degree from the Middlebury School of Spanish in 1977 and did further graduate work at the University of Minnesota. In addition to Spanish, she is fluent in Portuguese and has had training in Italian. We spoke to her about her path from Alabama to Vermont to Washington and beyond.

Q: How did you first become interested in foreign languages?

A: I started studying Spanish in high school. At that time there were not many Spanish speakers in Alabama and Louisiana, so I didn’t have the opportunity for immersion in the language until my junior year at Spelman. I spent that year in Spain, and I became hooked on the language, literature, and culture. 

Q: How did you first hear about the Middlebury program?

A: There had been a loosely held tradition for Spelman language students to go to Middlebury Language Schools. My academic counselor made the suggestion, and when I learned that the master’s program was primarily staged in Madrid, I was anxious to engage.

Q: Coming from Birmingham and Atlanta, what were your impressions of small town Vermont during the summer you spent at the School of Spanish?

A: It was acute culture shock, but in a positive way. The smell and feel of the air and the colors were like I could have imagined from a movie or a painting. The contrast with the South was glaring: more gentle and rustic, less warm and gentile. I liked it, though I was always aware that I was in unfamiliar territory.

Q: How was life under the Pledge, with no English spoken?

A: Initially it was a struggle, until we realized that nearly all of us were dealing with the same difficulties. The professors were from different Spanish-speaking countries, which introduced an entirely new facet of diversity in the language and its idioms. The Pledge gave us a wonderful opportunity to experiment and to try harder to develop fluency. I believe we all were fluent in Spanish by the end of the program.

Q: You arrived in Madrid just after the death of General Franco. What was it like and what changes did you see during your time there? How were you and your classmates received as Americans?

A: This was a time when being an American abroad was most often a very good thing. Vestiges of the generation from the Second World War were still around and viewed Americans, by and large, in a positive way. Even so, the Spanish left was empowered by the death of the dictator, so we met a good measure of ideological challenge when we mixed with local students. This inspired lively discussions with aggressive interlocutors on occasion. It was wonderful preparation for my diplomatic career, which was not even in my most remote plans at the time.

My experience taught me that learning a language not only gives you deeper understanding of foreigners and foreign cultures, but also helps you to understand yourself better.

Q: When you came to Middlebury, were you already interested in diplomatic work?

A: It was not until I had left Middlebury and continued to doctoral studies in Spanish and Portuguese literature at the University of Minnesota that I considered leaving academia for a more adventurous profession. The State Department sent a recruiter to campus, and I was able to start the lengthy process of enlistment.

Q: Your first State Department assignment was in Italy. Tell us about that.

A: I was ecstatic about my assignment to Rome. I was just as enthusiastic about learning a third language, although that was not without challenge. Whereas I had been able to keep my Spanish and Portuguese separated in my mind, when I added Italian to the mix, I found myself struggling to wall off my two first languages. I recall that I even experienced the manifestation of random French words as I studied Italian. All of this receded when I was immersed in Italian in Rome.

Q: What was it like to move around the world so much?

A: Leaving Rome was devastating. I had a wonderful group of friends and missed them terribly. It got easier as I went along, but unlike some, I invested myself in the places I served, making departures very emotional.

Q: What were your favorite assignments?

A: I loved all of my assignments and continued to learn and grow through them in the course of my career. Of all my postings, Mozambique was most distant culturally. I attempted to stay in Southern Africa for a second tour, but it was not to be. From there, I went to Rio de Janeiro, another marvelous, magical place. After serving in several former Portuguese colonies, I was prepared not to like Portugal. Instead, it completed for me the love of the Iberian Peninsula I had acquired in my time at Middlebury.  

Q: When you served in Argentina, what did people think of your “Spanish Spanish”? Did you start to change your accent and pronunciation and pick up the local dialect, or did you stay true to your Madrid Spanish?

A:  It took a while to adapt to Argentine Spanish. In the eighties, Buenos Aires was far more isolated than it is today. Telephones (ground lines only) didn’t function well. Email was pretty much confined to work, so the sense of being far away from home was strong. The Internet had not developed its powerful presence yet, and Americans were exotic. As I settled in, locals were happy that I spoke Spanish, and they were fond of the Continental Spanish accent.

Language is an instrument that helps us to perceive how human beings are more alike than we are different across cultural divides. The need for this knowledge is critical nowadays, and I would encourage every student to take the opportunity to learn a new language.

Q: You were nominated by President Obama to be U.S. Ambassador to Cape Verde.  What was it like to go through the confirmation process and then to present your credentials to the Government there?

A: Being nominated was truly an honor. I admit the confirmation process was grueling in many respects. My confirmation hearing was scheduled promptly, owing in part to my grouping with Steven Brzezinski, who was being confirmed to serve as ambassador to Sweden. The Senators were very friendly with him, which likely made it easier for the rest of us, or so we thought.

The Cabo Verdeans were welcoming. The credentialing ceremony there was just as formal as in Portugal, only without the white horses.

Q: As ambassador, how much of your work was done in Portuguese? What adjustments did you have to make linguistically in your work there?

A: By the time I went to Cape Verde, Portuguese was my strongest language. I had inadvertently become a Lusophone specialist, serving in four countries where Portuguese was the official language (Mozambique, Brazil, Portugal, and Cape Verde). I learned very quickly that the general population spoke Cape Verdean Creole much more than Portuguese. I struggled to learn enough of it to afford wider access and a broader audience for my policy and civic proclamations.

Each of the nine inhabited islands had its own version of Creole, leading me to concentrate on the Creole of Santiago Island, where the embassy is located. This was not fully appreciated by all, but I felt it was a fair compromise. Diplomats in Cape Verde often preferred to speak French. (Nowadays, English dominates multilateral dialogues in most places.) Needless to say, my French improved a great deal during that assignment.

This was a time when being an American abroad was most often a very good thing. Vestiges of the generation from the Second World War were still around and viewed Americans, by and large, in a positive way.

Q: What are your thoughts on the state of language learning and linguistic fluency in the U.S. now? Do you see improvements over the past few decades? Why would you encourage students to learn a foreign language?

A: I am astonished by the increase in the number of students who have traveled to foreign countries during the course of their college and high school years. This does not mean that they have all acquired language capabilities, but I believe there has been much improvement. Sadly, Americans are still recognized around the globe as persons likely to know only one language.

My experience taught me that learning a language not only gives you deeper understanding of foreigners and foreign cultures, but also helps you to understand yourself better. Language is an instrument that helps us to perceive how human beings are more alike than we are different across cultural divides. The need for this knowledge is critical nowadays, and I would encourage every student to take the opportunity to learn a new language.

Q: You were able to join us in New York for the School of Spanish centennial celebration. What was it like to reconnect with classmates and Middlebury? What were some of the best memories you were able to share with friends there?

A: The Centennial Celebration was far more emotional than I had expected. My former classmates and I did not recognize one another, but when we looked in a scrapbook one former student had kept, we were all there in pictures. It turned out that we had similar memories of people and places, but not of one another. That was quite a surprise. We remembered 30 years later how much that year in Madrid impacted us emotionally and cemented our knowledge of and affection for the Spanish language and Spain itself.

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