By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
The more you learn about Margaret O’Neal, the more her future appears limitless. After all, she’s a 2022 Georgia Tech graduate with an industrial and systems engineering degree. She also completed four years of ROTC and is commissioning in the Army this summer as a second lieutenant in the first brigade combat team in the 82nd Airborne Division. Sharing her excitement, Margaret said, “I’ll even be able to use my education in supply chain and logistics in my new role as a platoon leader. And, I’ll get to jump out of airplanes!”
“Do your best. Don’t spend time comparing yourself to others. Find what you love to do.” – Margaret O’Neal
Clearly this 21 year-old qualifies as a Next Gen SHEro with loads of potential and lots to look forward to. Fortunately, Margaret is facing all her new opportunities and challenges with a strong foundation.
Family – a strong foundation begins at home
In her own words, Margaret explained what her growing up was like. “I grew up in east Cobb in Marietta, Georgia and I have two older brothers. We lived with our parents and it was just a really great experience. We all got along very well. Obviously my brothers and I would fight occasionally so one of the challenges growing up was having two older brothers. But looking back, they made me tough and strong and I really found who I was through them. They supported me (and still do), but they’re also the hardest ones on me which ultimately helped me develop my confidence.”
In addition to the “brotherly” influence she experienced, Margaret said her mother was a definite role model, kind and loving, yet letting you know the consequences of your actions. Overall, the entire O’Neal family dynamic was nurturing – starting with church together on Sundays followed by lunch. “We had a lot of family sit downs where we would share a meal together. During the week, when my dad would come home from work, we would have dinner, my mom would cook and we’d all sit down at the table. Those dinner table conversations were really influential in my upbringing.”
The summer of her junior year in high school, an interesting thing happened and it was truly a pivotal experience. “My dad and I went to an air show and I was fascinated, watching the planes and especially talking to actual pilots and veterans. After that, I asked to take flying lessons – and I started that summer.”
One chapter ends, another begins
In her senior year, flying lessons took a back seat while Margaret considered her college options. “My dad suggested I consider the military academies and I decided to apply. I had the necessary Congressional support and was interviewed but I wasn’t accepted. However, that’s when I was offered a full scholarship to Georgia Tech and honestly, it was the best of both worlds – college plus the military. I felt very fortunate.”
During the fall of her freshman year at Tech, Margaret got involved in ROTC. She didn’t sign a contract immediately but she thought it was awesome, adding, “It wasn’t easy! Those 5 a.m. workouts were tough, but I was surrounded by people I admired.”
Another very important part of her college experience came about through a special organization, Alpha Delta Pi or ADPi. Initially Margaret wasn’t sure about joining a sorority, but she saw how confident the girls were. “I realized they were exactly the kind of friends and students I wanted to be surrounded by.” During the next three years, she became VP of Operations for her ADPi chapter. And along with her sorority sisters and at other times with other ROTC cadets, Margaret also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity as well as the Ronald McDonald House. “My favorite thing there was having the opportunity to stay with some of the families as their child was undergoing treatment or surgery.”
Off with the cap and gown, on to the Army
At the time of her graduation from Georgia Tech in May 2022, Margaret quite naturally garnered attention from the local press. After all, serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division isn’t an everyday thing. (And don’t mention that females are the minority in this division!)
Learning to jump out of a C130 or C17 and then progressing to a UH60 Black Hawk helicopter with your fellow paratroopers is rather special. So is being trained to serve as an Ordinance Officer! “I was surprised when I found out what my job would be,” Margaret said. “While I have a lot to learn, I think my education will definitely be beneficial. As a platoon leader, I’ll have 35-40 soldiers to lead.”
But first, starting July 9, 2022, she has a four months basic officer leadership course at Fort Lee, VA followed by three weeks of Airborne School at Fort Benning, GA. After all that, Margaret will be permanently stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. Sounds like a hectic schedule ahead! But no doubt – Margaret’s ready!
Margaret said she doesn’t have any preconceived future goal or ambition in terms of where she sees herself in 5-10 years. But she’s excited now and plans to focus on the next four years. “After that I’ll be in a better position to decide about continuing my military career or possibly going in a different direction.”
Interestingly, when asked what career path other than the one she’s chosen she might otherwise have taken, she said, “Well, I thought about management consulting or project management. But what I know for sure is that I want to be in leadership roles and I want to work with people. I like to organize tasks and get things done.”
Given her accomplishments so far, it’s clear that Margaret is and will continue to be a role model for many young girls. The advice she offers, especially to high school girls, is this: “Do your best. Don’t spend time comparing yourself to others. Find what you love to do.” She even added some wisdom based on her own college experience. “After my freshman year, I stopped talking about my grades with other people. I quit making the comparison. I just did my personal best in a highly competitive environment. I believe doing your best is good enough.”
Wise words indeed. Onward and upward, Margaret. Can’t wait to follow your career.
Interview & Profile by: Susan Hitchcock, Founder of The Age of SHEroes