A twisting arrow to success
The photos hanging on an office wall in Lincoln, Nebraska, offer a window into a past globe-trotting life for a Department of Homeland Security leader.
Here’s one of Mary Beth “MB” Brennan Seng, wearing a USAID baseball cap while inspecting latrines in Uganda in 2007. Here’s another showing MB on the balcony of a United Nations office in Rome in 2009. A third places MB at a temple in Nepal in 2010. She’d gone there for earthquake risk planning. A fourth shows a familiar setting: the White House Rose Garden. MB was among other first responders to the 2010 Haiti earthquake being honored by then-Presidents Barack Obama and René Préval of Haiti.
For most of the past decade, MB has served her country from Nebraska’s capital city, her hometown of Lincoln. She works for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security but has spent the past several months at NCITE.
It’s an unusual placement for someone in the competitive DHS Senior Executive Service Candidate Development program. Others who make it into this 18-month training program are typically assigned to other DHS components or other federal agencies.
MB says she heard about a new DHS Center of Excellence in Omaha and wanted to be involved. She started in September and finishes up this month. Her role has been in developing organizational strategy.
The experience has been mutually beneficial. MB is getting a window into a “COE” world – a startup at that. (NCITE work began July 1.)
NCITE is getting a DHS-insider view of the key counterterrorism offices of the federal government along with an extra set of hands. MB has provided research and high-level guidance on operations, communications, and process.
“MB has been an important asset for us in our early months,” said Gina Ligon, NCITE director. “She is helping us figure out the best way forward for center sustainability beyond the 10 years of the DHS COE grant.”
NCITE has great leadership that will make a huge difference in its future.
- MB Brennan Seng
MB’s career path is a twisty arrow, she jokes, more than a straight line. This shows that the road to a Homeland Security profession does not have to start at its front door.
That arrow begins in Lincoln and goes to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where MB got her undergraduate degree in international relations and conflict resolution. The arrow shoots to London, where she earned a master’s degree in public policy and management from the University of London. It then goes to Chicago, where MB worked in nonprofits. Then onto Washington, D.C., where MB began her federal service career with the U.S. Agency for International Development. At USAID, MB managed the government’s humanitarian response programs and served on the disaster assistance response teams in East Africa and was the liaison to the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome. MB found her specialty was streamlining processes and making bureaucracy work more efficiently.
Family brought her back to Lincoln in 2013. She leads the humanitarian division of USCIS at the Nebraska Service Center. In that role, she manages a division of about 120 people. She was one of 42 selected out of 600 applicants for the DHS executive leadership development program.
As MB reflected on that twisted path, she realized one straight line ran through each role she’s played, and that was an overall mission of helping people. Her past day-to-day didn’t allow for a lot of reflection time. The leadership development program has given her time to think big-picture.
“Really reflecting on your values has been a big gift,” she said. “I’m not happy if I don’t have a clear understanding of how I’m helping. That’s been the common denominator.”
MB is leaving NCITE with a deeper understanding of counterterrorism and academic contributions to the Homeland Security Enterprise. She could see herself tapping universities for expertise to bring back to DHS. She said the NCITE experience also reinforced characteristics of good leadership: listening and collaboration.
“NCITE has great leadership that will make a huge difference in its future,” she said.
That twisty arrow in MB’s career path will place her in charge of 1,000 immigration specialists who must make timely and accurate decisions on immigration benefits. Starting later this month, she will serve as acting deputy director of a USCIS service center outside Nebraska. This is not part of her DHS SES training, which ends Feb. 25. But it undoubtedly will hone her skills further and offer her another way to help.