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When Kimberly O’Connor, DM ’08, first earned her counseling degree in 1997, she was passionate about helping individuals struggling with addiction. Just 15 years later, though, she’s looking out for the interests of an entire nation.
“CBP is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) most complex [agencies],” explains O’Connor, who lives in the Washington, D.C, area where she works. With more than 58,000 employees and 6,000 miles of international land border to secure, it’s also DHS’s largest law enforcement agency. Staff members include frontline border patrol agents and officers at ports of entry, as well as behind-the-scenes operational and missions support.
Part of CBP’s purpose is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States. Maintaining this high level of national security must be balanced with appropriate allowance for the legitimate travel and trade that is key to the country’s economic health and the American way of life.
“The CBP is remarkable in breadth and scope,” says O’Connor. “The number of things we deal with is ever-evolving.” This includes leading the nation’s counternarcotics efforts at the border. “Our primary challenge has been and will be staying ahead of smugglers,” she says. “Really, counternarcotics efforts begin at the border. Each day, we seize approximately 14 thousand pounds of [illegal] drugs.”
As chief of staff, O’Connor has a hand in every part of the agency’s massive scope as she advises the CBP commissioner on policy issues and represents the organization in meetings, among her other duties.
She’s thrived in her role thanks in part to the mentors who have helped her along the way. “When you are in law enforcement, having strong female mentors who are great leaders helps provide framework and comfort to move forward in challenging situations,” she says.
Having been on the receiving end of this support has inspired O’Connor to pass the gift of counsel on to others. “I feel it is absolutely critical to have those mentors and also to mentor,” she says. “I feel very fortunate.” She considers herself lucky to have a supportive husband and son, too. “While the days may be long, having them understand my job makes such a big difference,” she says.
O’Connor also believes in lifelong learning, a sentiment reflected in the fact that she earned her Doctor of Management from University of Phoenix in 2008 before her role at the CBP. She credits the program with providing her with skills she needs to thrive in her evolving roles within the government. “[My education] directly applied to the work I was doing every day,” she notes.
O’Connor’s sweeping responsibilities are a far cry from her early days as a drug counselor with the Maricopa County Superior Court in her home state of Arizona. Over the years, she worked her way through increasingly more senior roles in county and state government, uncovering her passion for criminal justice and substance abuse policy along the way.
“[This] was a great opportunity to experience so many parts of the criminal justice system,” she says. Her work included interaction with treatment providers, judges, policy makers and community organizations, along with the individuals they treated. “It was fascinating to me. I had a direct opportunity to see the need for treatment and services, and I realized there were things that could be done to help these individuals.”
One encounter stands out as a defining moment for O’Connor. “[The individual] was in his early 40s or 50s at the time he entered prison,” she explains. He had lost his children, was separated from his wife and repeatedly tested positive on his drug screenings. He was incarcerated for a while before receiving treatment, but “18 months later, he was successful and clean and sober,” she says.
Years later, O’Connor ran into him at a local mall. “He was there with his wife and grandkids,” she remembers, “and he talked about how important the program was to him, how if he had not received treatment, he would have succumbed to addiction.”
Moments like these are what drive O’Connor during the long days—and nights, sometimes—at the CBP. “It is so important to enjoy the work you do, find that passion and be able to persevere and continue when there are challenging times,” she says. “It makes work meaningful every day, whether it’s stopping drugs from crossing the border or providing treatment to someone [in need].”