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Spotlight Series

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Michigan State University's Global Youth Advancement Network (GYAN) introduces the Global Voices Spotlight Series as a next phase in GYAN's Global Voices brand, joining our Essay Contest and Webinar Series. This series provides a space for intergenerational conversation between young people and professionals devoted to meaningful global engagement and problem solving via research and outreach activities related to youth. Alongside recognizing contributions to youth-focused initiatives by members of the MSU Community in International Studies and Programs, and beyond, the interviews will include pointed advice from the interviewees to young people interested in pursuing their fields of study and career paths. Join in to hear voices from multiple perspectives on some of the world's most intractable challenges!

Eligible contributors to this series are:

  • MSU Students
  • MSU Faculty or Staff
  • MSU Alumni
  • Young Innovators
  • Industry Experts

If you would like to nominate yourself or a colleague to be featured in our Global Voices Spotlight series, please do so using this Nomination Form.


Featured Spotlight: Marcy Hessling O'Neil

Global Voices Spotlight features Dr. Marcy Hessling O'Neil, assistant professor of Anthropology and former advisor for the Peace and Justice Studies program at MSU. Dr. O'Neil served as one of GYAN's mentors at our Global Youth Advancement Summit in 2019. She has also conducted ethnographic research among students and their families in Benin, West Africa for nine years. Below you can watch a highlight video and read a shortened transcript from our conversation with Dr. O'Neil about her career path and current work in Benin.

March 31, 2022 

Abridged transcription of Dr. O'Neil's interview with GYAN intern, Jayson James. 

GYAN: Welcome and thank you so much for coming today. To begin our interview, could you please explain some of the things you brought in for us today?

O'NEIL: Sure! I brought in our book series I worked on with my colleagues called Books that Bind [pictured above]. When working with communities in Benin, we noticed that there weren't many children's books available in the language they speak at home. Storytelling is important in this community, and school for the elders took place under a mango tree. Their stories were meaningful and used as lessons. So, my colleagues and I collaborated with the elders to record their stories and use an online software to create bilingual and trilingual books. The kids would listen, act out the story, and create illustrations with artists to embody the lessons within the folktales. We received a grant from the US embassy to start a second round of the book series and create workshops to teach camera work and story boarding to people in the community.

GYAN: That is amazing! My next question pertains to the work you are doing in Benin. How did you start there and what inspired you to work internationally?

O'NEIL: I did my research for the PhD thesis on migration for education. I created connections with professors and faculty that introduced me to the community in Benin, West Africa. I also wanted a broad view on not just the effects of migration for education on the individual but also the entire family. I felt a personal connection because I was the first in my family to go to college. I constantly questioned myself. Do I belong here? How am I going to pay for this? Am I as smart as everyone else? My personal inspiration came from being a first-generation college student.

GYAN: People tend to gloss over the privilege that comes from getting a higher education. What do you think the power in education is especially being a first-generation?

O'NEIL: There are two sides. The first one is the validation that comes from owning a college degree. It validates something you know about yourself. You did all this hard work to get it and maybe your family doesn't understand that. That is the second part. My family doesn't understand the hard work and struggle because they did not do it. They won't recognize why it is important. However, a diploma provided me with an external validation because it showed that I could do it. High school was difficult for me, and I could not graduate. For a few years I wandered and realized that I had skills and things to contribute but people would not acknowledge them without a degree. I think elementary education teaches you what you need to know, while higher education teaches you how to think critically and share what you know. You learn how to take that knowledge and apply it to make the world a better place.

GYAN: There is this traditional timeline that society strictly enforces. What advice do you have for people who don't take the stereotypical straight forward path?

O'NEIL: I know the pandemic must have disturbed many people's timelines. I think this helped us understand the importance of flexibility. I got my GED at 23 and I already felt behind, but behind what? I had gained the knowledge while also gaining many real-world experiences. In community college, I was able draw upon my experiences to solve case studies. I believe we need to start reframing our timeline to be not as rigid but as a meandering path that life takes. There are many non-traditional ways to gain knowledge. If you took a gap year, reflect on it and understand how to integrate your experiences into your learnings.

GYAN: That is great advice! Can you speak more about some of the projects you've been a part of throughout your career?

O'NEIL: After I conducted research for my PhD in Benin, my colleagues and I created a nonprofit NGO in Benin which is now a 501c3 in the US. It's called Three Sisters. We were then invited to the Global Youth Advancement Summit to present our research. This was a great experience because our team got to be around so many other young people thinking about big issues to make the world more equitable. Now, I'm in the Department of Anthropology and an Advisor which allows me to connect with many faculty members throughout MSU. We have a grant for Peace Building Through Youth and I have also been working through Global Ideas at MSU. We create projects that look at the big picture such as Empowered Girls in Kenya that promotes learning life skills and building a strong self-esteem for girls out of school. I can relate to these girls because I believe everyone has inside of them something they can give to the world.


Dr. O'Neil advises young people, "Look broadly. Don't limit your career."


GYAN: A lot of what you do is through mentorship. How did your transition to a mentor take place? How does it feel to bring diverse experiences together to help others?

O'NEIL: It feels great. I had a great mentor that taught me about reciprocity in my undergraduate studies. Reciprocity is not I give you a gift and you immediately have to give me one back. That is just an exchange. Reciprocity means I give you what you need at that moment and later you can share that new knowledge back or to someone else who needs it. My mentor gave me so much. He spent time with me, he believed in me, and maybe I can't give the same back to him, but I can give that to someone else who needs it. The great thing is that I am still his mentee. Another thing he taught me was that mentors are always in between. I loved that. A mentor is always between 2 stages. If you have a problem or challenge, a mentor can give you suggestions, but they won't do anything for you. They will help you reach the solution of your problems. The most rewarding thing for me is seeing my mentees becoming mentors.

GYAN: In terms of youth advice, what do you wish someone told you when you were younger and pursuing your goals?

O'NEIL: I wish I heard more often that I had more to give. I wish people looked more at my assets and what I could offer rather than reminding me of my deficits. I wish I was told to believe that I had something to offer. There will always be haters but there will also always be people who admire you from afar. The problem is we don't often tell each other. If we complimented and admired each other more, then we would all be a lot more confident.

GYAN: Coming from a negative space, how did you overcome your challenges to believe that you do have worth?

O'NEIL: There are people who have been champions. Certain people have said "I believe in you". That is so important. People who say that won't realize how important it is. For example, Chinwe Effiong believed in us and said, "this a is a great project." She was the first external person to acknowledge the worth of our project. Before I had my GED, I had friends in graduate school who would ask me to help with their papers. I started to think, "I might be smart enough to go to college." My sister invited me to sit in one of her community college classes and after that I thought that I could do this. It was a slow process. Imposter syndrome is real. I felt like I didn't belong, and I only got good grades because the professor felt bad for me. It took a while to get rid of the negative self-talk. It's a process.

GYAN: We often compare ourselves to others and need both internal and external sources that push us forward. Societal pressures and standards hold us back. What is your mindset?

O'NEIL: Perseverance is huge and is not limited. It is best when in the face of a big challenge to keep going. I like how there is more of a discussion surrounding mental health. It is no longer something to hide. If we are feeling frustrated, we should talk about it. Being frustrated does not mean we are weak. We should acknowledge our weak points and persevere.

GYAN: What kind of advice would you give to someone transitioning onto the next stages of their life whether it is going into higher education or starting a career?

O'NEIL: I would say to look broadly. Don't limit your career. Don't narrow yourself to what you can be successful in. Don't be afraid. You don't have to do something just because it is related to your major. Life takes you in different directions. Reflect on what you learned throughout your experiences, not just your classes. You do not have to work in marketing just because it was your major. If you choose a different path that does not mean that you failed. You may not remain in your initial subfield, but you can draw upon it and apply it to a broader field and different contexts.

GYAN: I see you brought some items along with you. Can you explain what they are and where you got them from?

O'NEIL: We work with artisans in Niger who live in the Sahara, and they create unique pieces while being aware of their environmental impacts. I brought a hand carved cup made of stone. The design represents how the sand moves in the Sahara. I also brought a spoon made of the bark of trees. The spoon is hand carved, and the design is burned on. It is amazing to see the entire process from the starting to materials to the final product. I also have a hand-woven bag made from natural grasses by the women in the community. The grass is dyed using natural colors to give the beautiful design. I love working with creative people and this community creates and sells these artisan pieces to support themselves and send their kids to school. Education is the central thread to all of this.

GYAN: That concludes our interview. I had a great time and I appreciate you taking the time to sit and talk with us Dr. O'Neil.

View the full interview on GYAN's YouTube page.