'Never Stop Growing'

Angie Crea O'Neal on Leadership

Wonderful and rewarding things have happened for Department of English alumna Angie O’Neal since she earned her PhD in 2007. During the 2008 Modern Language Association conference, Angie interviewed with Shorter University, a small four-year university in Rome, Georgia. This led to an offer of a tenure-track position and her departure from the Sonoran desert for the lush greenness of her home state of Georgia, with daughters Marin and Maeve.

O'Neal says that her experiences at Shorter have been some of the most enriching of her career. For her, one of the perks of the position with Shorter has been the interactions with her students: “They teach me way more than they realize. The relationships with my students have been transformative for me personally and are by far the biggest blessing. Knowing I’ve had some small part in their intellectual and spiritual development makes me so grateful to be here.” O'Neal says that the close-knit university community draws students who want smaller classes, greater access to faculty, and the integration of faith and education that Shorter provides.

Her time at Shorter also has provided her with opportunities to grow professionally. O'Neal became the chair of the English Department there three years ago and in 2015 received the honor of the inaugural endowed position as Joan Alden Spiedel Chair in English. While the new title did not necessarily impact the day-to-day experiences of her job, O’Neal observes that it did make her more conscious of her own accomplishments and of her role in the legacy of Shorter University. She says it reminds her that there are larger ideals that are part of Shorter and her responsibility “in the ennobling value of a liberal arts education, in intellectual discipleship, in the joy of serving others, and of belonging to a community of people who love God and genuinely want to make the world better.” O'Neal says that these are the kinds of ideals that are often lost in the hustle and bustle of the semester, and the value of pausing to consider how important these elements are for Shorter’s community as a whole: “It’s good to remember that there’s a bigger metanarrative going on, a greater purpose behind all of it that extends far beyond the margins of my CV.”

In early June 2016, O'Neal attended the Association of Departments of English (ADE) Summer Seminar West in Scottsdale, which was hosted by ASU English. She enjoyed the opportunity to meet with other department chairs, eager to learn from and share with others about the role and importance of the chair position. After three years in this capacity at Shorter, she says it has gotten easier, but that “being a chair is like trying to juggle bowling balls while someone constantly pokes you in the stomach asking you for things. I often feel like I’m too preoccupied with the juggling to think holistically and strategically.” The issue of recruitment and retention of English majors, something that faces all departments, is of particular interest to O’Neal, and she hoped to gain insight into how other departments have handled and continue to handle this issue.

Perhaps that’s the secret to aging well, to never stop growing and discovering new things about yourself and your purpose.

Beyond her role as chair, O'Neal has grown creatively through her teaching and her love of poetry. Her busy life as a single-mother of two young girls and her professional duties left little room for writing, especially something as intensive as a monograph or long essays. Such projects were overwhelming, O'Neal notes, but a subscription to a contemporary poetry journal prompted her own interest in creativity. Taking the time to enjoy the journal made her look to her own life and her time with her children for inspiration, finding reflection in the simplest of experiences. The dozen or so poems that she composed that summer were published by various journals, including San Pedro River ReviewKentucky Review, and Cumberland River Review, in which her 2015 Pushcart-nominated poem “When the moon tells us of losses” appeared. Like William Wordsworth, a favorite poet of hers, O'Neal says that the opportunity to reflect on her life’s upheavals and joys has provided her with a way of “discovering truths and sharing those with others.”

Looking back over her professional and personal experiences brings O'Neal back to a single quotation by George Eliot: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been." That quotation stayed with her in her decision to apply for graduate school, wanting to pursue her doctorate, but not sure of her path nor confident of success. Reflecting on that decision and that quotation’s importance in her life, O'Neal considers that sentiment to be a kind of mantra for her life: “Perhaps that’s the secret to aging well, to never stop growing and discovering new things about yourself and your purpose.”

Dana Tait

Photo of Angie O'Neal with daughters Maeve (left) and Marin (right) courtesy of O'Neal.