Scholars in Love: Brendan and Danielle O’Neill 2021 Tillman Scholars

Blog | 02/14/2023

If you asked one of our Tillman Scholars, they would agree that getting that call to learn they’ve been selected is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. What could make that moment even better though? Being able to experience it with your significant other.

This was the case for 2021 Tillman Scholars Brendan and Danni O’Neill. Brendan and Danni had exchanged a few messages after matching on an online dating app. They decided to meet up for coffee and a brief introduction — safely preserving the option to exit quickly. As they sat down for their first of many coffee dates, they knew unmistakably that they had met somewhere before. Their mutual efforts to remember precisely where served as the perfect icebreaker conversation. They quickly realized that Danni had been a barista at a coffee shop that Brendan frequented when she had first moved to San Diego three years’ prior. While their interactions were brief, they each remembered them in detail, and both confessed that they had thought about asking each other out.

Less than a year later, the two took a long-awaited vacation to Australia, where Brendan planned to propose during the Sydney “Bridge Climb.” Fate, however, had different plans. Upon entry into Australia, Brendan was detained for the engagement ring he had in his bag, which customs demanded he pay taxes on or leave at the airport! After nearly two hours of arguing without success, a saga that could be a story all its own, he reluctantly paid the sum rather than be thwarted in his plans. Brendan deflected any suspicion and said he had been detained due to multiple stamps in his passport from previous deployments around the world. The couple set off in their rental car for Surfer’s Paradise the next day, but their trials were not over. During the six-hour drive on the New South Wales freeway, a vehicle entered the highway from the right and inexplicably came to a complete stop in the middle of the highway! Knowing he could not change lanes due to the heavy traffic moving at 70 kph, Brendan began slowing. As he broke harder, he glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the smoke from the trailers and large recreational vehicles all attempting to stop behind them. It was clear that while Brendan could avoid hitting the vehicle by swerving to the side and coming to a stop, the remaining cars would not be so lucky. A multi-vehicle crash ensued, in which one car launched into the air, flipped upside down, and landed next to Brendan and Danni.

Brendan began directing traffic while Danni, a recent EMT graduate, rendered aid to a nearby elderly woman in the rolled car. After the accident was cleared and medical personnel were on the scene, authorities took Brendan and Danni’s statements. The two managed to get their vehicle off the freeway into a trailer park, as the side of the road seemed an unsafe spot to wait for a replacement vehicle from Sydney. This proved a good decision as, moments later, another car veered off the freeway into a water-filled drainage ditch. Brendan and Danni looked at each other in disbelief and helped the couple out of the car, and they were soon picked up by their rental company. There, Brendan looked to Danni and said, “None of this has really gone as planned, and at this rate, I’m not sure we are going to make it through this trip alive. So, I think it’s a good idea if I ask you this now before it’s too late…” and Brendan opened Danni’s car door and proposed. They made it to Surfer’s Paradise without further incident and announced their engagement with a photo of their joined hands, two robust coffees, and a simple statement: “Caffeinated and Engaged :).”

From the start, they realized that almost nothing goes as planned, but together they knew they could take on anything (coffee helps).

In June 2021, the two were unknowingly set for a new adventure together. PTF reached out to Brendan to congratulate him on becoming a Tillman Scholar. This news is typically met with excitement, commotion, crying, and the occasional colorful, expletive; their lives just changed forever, could you blame them? But when Brendan received the news, there was a slight delay to his reaction. After a brief pause, Brendan asked: “What about my wife?” With full hearts, our team was able to share with him that Danielle was also accepted into the 2021 class of Tillman Scholars. And just like that, his joyous reaction came pouring out!

Brendan’s excitement for Danielle’s news more so than his own warmed the hearts of everyone on the call, and the best part was yet to come. After the details of Brendan’s scholarship were disclosed to him, we asked if he wanted to stay on the call as we brought Danielle in to share the news with her, which he happily accepted. As the phone rang to get Danielle on the line, Brendan took a deep breathe and responded to Danielle’s confusion to answering an unknown phone number with the ever-so-casual “Hey babe, what’s up?”

Not expecting his voice on the other line, Danielle chatted with Brendan as if this was just any other phone call before he shared the news, “I just wanted to call and let you know that you’re a Tillman Scholar!” Cue the Hallmark moment as Danielle’s response perfectly mirrored the empathetic response of Brendan, “Did you make it too?”

The two were then free to celebrate knowing that they had made it through this journey together and were about to embark on yet another one, this time as Tillman Scholars.

As a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Brendan is committed to his research into human-robot teaming to maximize their combined strengths. These efforts will support exploring deep ocean and space environments to enhance our knowledge, increase survivability, and enable a better future. Concurrently, Danielle is working towards earning her DNP so that she can build collaborative medical centers in underserved communities. She plans on creating a place where physicians, nurse practitioners, dietitians, physical therapists, social workers, and mental health counselors work together under the same roof to provide continuity of care to patients to improve their health and overall quality of life.

Talk about a power couple! Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone — and especially these two.