A dissertation defense with danger like no other

May 22, 2020 / by / 0 Comment

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

Dr. Brandon O’Neil was ready to defend his doctoral dissertation, but he also had another type of defense on his mind.

Dr. Brandon O’Neil defended his doctoral dissertation while on deployment in Saudi Arabia.

The Aircraft Maintenance Advisor for the United States Air Force was in a bunker.

In Saudi Arabia.

Prepared for the threat of a rocket attack on U.S. troops.

And yet the terror of his dissertation defense loomed larger.

“A missile attack was the least of my fears for that hour,” he said, laughing. “It felt very surreal to talk about servant leadership in a time where we’re trying to defend a kingdom from adversaries. It’s just interesting how servant leadership could be an answer toward a better future.”

O’Neil’s dissertation was approved, completing his work on a Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership from Grand Canyon University

Being an active Air Force member made O’Neil no stranger to distance learning. He completed course requirements and participated in Zoom meetings with College of Doctoral Studies faculty.

So in May 2019, when he received orders to serve as part of the United States Military Training Mission, Air Force Division, in Saudi Arabia for a yearlong deployment, it was just another technicality he and his committee had to work through together. The goal remained the same – to defend his dissertation before returning home to Arizona later this year.

Halfway through his deployment, however, a United States airstrike killed Iran’s top military leader,  General Qasem Soleimani. U.S. troops were on alert for a counterattack as O’Neil prepared for his Jan. 17 dissertation defense. 

“There were some initial concerns from my committee with respect to the timing and feasibility of my dissertation defense,” O’Neil said. “Ultimately, we decided as a team to move forward with the defense as scheduled. I had taken all the necessary precautions for the defense to take place in an appropriate facility with the ability to take cover if needed.”

For that hour, he kept his work cellphone and laptop turned on and prepared to notify him of any attacks. Fortunately, he was able to continue with the defense uninterrupted.

As for being in the doctoral program while deployed, O’Neil said there were a lot of parallels between the two.

“The doctoral journey itself, there’s just so many obstacles you have to get past, no different than being deployed,” he said. “You just have to be determined to find a way.”

O’Neil, who has been in the Air Force for 17 years, also earned his master’s degree in Leadership from GCU in 2010.  His advice to his fellow learners about completing the doctoral journey: Prepare for obstacles.

“The times where you feel least motivated to work is when the most energy is going to be required,” he said.

O’Neil’s deployment is scheduled to conclude in July, pending any travel restrictions because of COVID-19. He hopes to be reunited then with his wife, Cinthya, and five children.

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected]


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