Brenna O’Neill’s passion for psychology, international studies, and Spanish—her majors and minor at the University of Miami—have led her around the world.
Though Almeria has been her home these past 12 years, whether she’s shopping in the local market for fish freshly caught in the nearby Mediterranean Sea or savoring gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) tapas and Manchego cheese along the promenade, Brenna O’Neill still occasionally hears the question: “¿Qué hace una chica Americana aquí?”
To that question of “What’s an American girl doing here?” O’Neill has reasons aplenty to call this idyllic Spanish city home—as she has since arriving a few months after graduating from the University of Miami in 2009.
“The culture is amazing, the lifestyle is amazing,” O’Neill explained, speaking via Zoom from her apartment with a terrace that looks out toward the shimmering Mediterranean. “People are outside all the time. You go for walks down the Paseo Marítimo—the boardwalk along the beach—you have a coffee outside, eat your tapas [small plates of food], you speak to the people at the table next to you. It’s strange, in fact, if you don’t strike up a conversation with the strangers next to you—it’s fabulous.”
Add to the cultural ambiance the fact that the software start-up O’Neill began working for two years ago, using both her psychology and Spanish skills to the nth degree in training and development, has enjoyed booming success over the past year, life for her indeed may seem like a dream come true, especially of late.
A self-described “perpetual learner,” O’Neill admits to being bitten by the travel bug a long while back. And she has a strong inclination to pursue her interests.
A native of Philadelphia, O’Neill attended Catholic primary school with her older sister, Katie, also a University of Miami alumna who graduated in 2007. She did not follow her sister to the Catholic high school, instead opting to attend Central High, a college prep school rated among the 10 best in the country that offered a more open academic setting.
The family enjoyed vacations in Florida while she was growing up. And when it came time for college, O’Neill lined up her priorities: an academic challenge, heading south, and a college with an exciting football team.
In 2005, the University was at the top of its football game and when she was accepted—the only one of 10 friends who had applied—the decision was easy. And exciting enough that she even convinced her sister to transfer and attend the University with her.
“It was important for me to find a school with some real spirit,” O’Neill said. “And my freshman year we had that whole experience, taking the bus from campus over to the games at the Orange Bowl—it was everything that I was looking for.”
She soon took advantage of another benefit that Miami offered. O’Neill had enjoyed Spanish class in high school, learning the basics though not much more; and once at the University, she enrolled in Spanish again.
“Being in Miami was great because you could practice outside in the community—it wasn’t just in the classroom that we were learning,” O’Neill remembered. “Our professor challenged us to immerse ourselves in the culture, to go watch movies, go to art expositions, and experience all the many different accents. When I started it was very difficult, but by the end I was a lot more confident in my skills.”
In her sophomore year, O’Neill signed on for a “Semester at Sea” through another college; the credits were applied to coursework at the University.
She spent those weeks circumnavigating the globe, visiting South Africa, Mauritius, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, and other countries, and learning about their cultures. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu was on board their ship and tutored the students on the suffering of Black South Africans under the apartheid system.
“The whole experience gave me a new appreciation for the world and for other cultures and a much deeper respect for the people in those countries,” she said.
Of the many countries, Cambodia made the biggest impact.
“Cambodia suffered a genocide in 1975-79, and the effects were still very visible when I was there,” she recalled. “Still a lot of unidentified landmines, a lot of children missing limbs, and yet it’s such a beautiful culture and country—I really fell in love with it.”
So much so that she went back the following summer to volunteer at an orphanage. She wrote her University capstone project on the impact of the Khmer Rouge regime on the culture that led to the child sex-trafficking industry that exists today.
When she graduated in 2009, O’Neill faced a bleak economic situation—very few jobs amid the recession. She was accepted to a master’s degree program for psychology, but then the travel bug nibbled again. And she decided to defer her studies and look for an au pair situation overseas.
When a Spanish couple responded that they were looking for a U.S. citizen to spend six months with them, speaking English with their two children, that they lived by the sea in a coastal town, O’Neill thought her dreams had been answered.
“I came, and here I am 12 years later,” she laughed. “I loved it: the culture, the opportunity to teach English as a second language, the chance to practice my Spanish.”
After a year, O’Neill started teaching at the local college. She soon made connections in the psychology department and then enrolled in the master’s degree program where she earned her degree studying in Spanish and writing her thesis focused on children learning English as a second language. After finishing, she was offered a scholarship that paid her to pursue her doctorate there as well.
But one day O’Neill noticed a logo for a company called “Genially” in a photograph. She wondered what it was and, as is her nature, set out exploring. On the company’s website, under “Work for Us,” the first job listing was for “U.S. country manager.”
“I’d been teaching for a few years and felt a little stuck,” she said. “I love learning new things and wanted to develop more skills.”
Though the manager position required someone based in the United States, the company responded that it would have another position soon to fit her.
A few months later, O’Neill began work with Genially in training and was soon after promoted to customer success manager, her current position.
“Being in the tech sector is so amazing and fast-paced, there are new things happening every day,” she said. Among her international clients now include the University’s Division of Continuing and International Education, along with a range of University professors who have personal accounts.
The company’s tool, which creates interactive and animated visual content, has skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic as it is sourced for educators and corporate users. In February 2020, her team celebrated hitting 2 million users; last week it clicked in with 11 million worldwide.
Her team has mushroomed from 40 employees to 109, with only three native English speakers, including herself. O’Neill speaks Spanish with her colleagues and trains clients in English and is thrilled—and super busy—in her training position.
“I’m so happy that I discovered training and the learning and development sector in general, because it’s psychology—what I studied—combined with education, which is what I’m so passionate about,” she said.
“I’ve never had an outlet before for my creativity—I’m not a painter or very musical—but now I have all these resources, and I figure out how to share them with the users. I have to apply the psychology of how people learn and how this group or that group will learn best,” she added.
O’Neill describes Almeria as “the gem of Spain and of Europe.” Few tourists find the little city pinpointed on the Andalusian coast, separated from the only desert in Europe by a surrounding mountain range, a fact that’s just fine with the locals who tend to be a close-knit community, according to O’Neill.
Even fewer U.S. citizens make their way there, which means at least for the time being, University alumna O’Neill—often referred to as “la chica Americana”—will continue to be quite the anomaly.