Michael Sweazey Brings Secret Service Thinking to Student Safety Abroad
August 27, 2015
Kennesaw State University’s new Director of Global Operations Michael Sweazey will use the skills gained during his 26 years as a U.S. Secret Service agent to help keep KSU students and faculty safe while traveling abroad.
Sweazey was hired in August 2015 by the Division of Global Affairs to fill the newly-created Director of Global Operations/International Risk Management Officer position. He is tasked with establishing and enforcing a consistent set of risk management policies for education abroad programs, and serves as a central point of contact for all questions about education abroad safety and emergency management.
“It’s my job to be that little voice of caution in the back of the student’s and faculty’s minds when they are overseas dealing with issues,” Sweazey says. Potential issues students may encounter on an education abroad program can be as minor as a student contracting food poisoning to as significant as getting caught in a natural disaster.
According to Dr. Lance Askildson, Kennesaw State’s Vice Provost for Global Affairs, “Mike Sweazey will be spending the next 18 months developing and codifying our practices to make sure students and faculty are informed when stepping into tricky situations.”
Preparation is Key
For nearly three decades, Sweazey’s job as a Secret Service agent was to protect the lives of U.S. presidents, other dignitaries, and their families. His duties included performing pre-arrival security sweeps of any city, country, or region his protectee planned to visit. These security sweeps are called advances.
“We did extensive advances to make sure that we knew everything that’s going on and that everything was secure,” Sweazey says. “Part of that was investigating any threats against our protectees.
“In essence, that’s what I want to do for the students going overseas. We want to make sure there is a plan in place. Obviously every situation is different and everything needs to be fluid. But, if you go overseas with a plan and something happens – whether it’s a weather-related issue, a medical thing, political violence, etc. – then we are already 90 percent of the way towards addressing it.”
Sweazey plans to compile information on emergency services for each location Kennesaw State sends students and faculty. For example, faculty need to know which hospital to use if a student gets sick or injured on a program. Rather than simply providing program leaders with listings of the closest hospitals, Sweazey wants to identify which area hospital is most equipped to treat the student.
“This can vary widely even in first-world countries,” he says.
Sweazey has also started tracking current issues around the world that could lead to problems for KSU programs, such as which countries may be at risk of a typhoon, or where economic unrest could lead to political violence. The goal is to know as much about where Kennesaw State education abroad programs are going long before the participants’ feet touch the ground.
He will share all relevant information with the faculty leading education abroad programs during a series of pre-departure security briefings.
From Engineering to Protection
While Sweazey has made a life-long career out of protecting VIPs at home and abroad, he originally studied something very different at Tennessee Technological University.
“I actually went to school for electrical engineering,” he says. “I spent a few years in EE. But, while trying out different electives, I went into a criminal justice class for three hours and, honestly, fell in love with it.”
Despite almost having enough credits to graduate with his electrical engineering degree, Sweazey switched majors to sociology and criminal justice. Fortunately, because his father had been a Secret Service agent from 1955 to 1977, Sweazey did not face much pushback.
“Let me give you a piece of advice,” he jokes. “If you ever want to change majors, change to what your dad was.”
While still attending school, he began working with the campus police department. After graduating in 1988, he spent nine months with the Tennessee Department of Corrections while waiting on a background check to clear him for federal service.
He went on to work for the Secret Service for 26 years, starting out as an investigator in the Tampa, Fla. field office, investigating treasuries fraud cases like identify theft and credit card fraud. Much of the Secret Service’s work involves these kinds of investigations. Prior to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service was actually a division of the Treasury Department.
After Tampa, he worked in the New York field office before being transferred to former President George H. W. Bush’s protective detail. Sweazey later became the Resident Agent for the Alaska field office, before being promoted to Assistant Special Agent in Charge of former President Jimmy Carter’s detail. He spent five years with President Carter before coming to Atlanta, where his roles included heading the training and special investigation squad, the electronic crimes task force, the protection squad, and the counterfeit investigative squad.
Of all his roles within the Secret Service, Sweazey says his time with President Carter was the one that most prepared him for his current role at Kennesaw State.
“President Carter is known for his travel,” Sweazey says, “specifically for traveling into high-risk places that are in the midst of conflicts or contested elections.”
Sweazey says the most challenging situation he encountered was in 2005 when President Carter traveled to Israel and Palestine to observe the Palestinian Authority presidential election following Yasser Arafat’s death the year before.
“That was fairly intense,” Sweazey says. “When we went into different areas to check the polls, there were thousands of people in the street. As we’re forcing the motorcade through, there were people with AK-47s all over the place firing them into the air. We got nervous.”
The logistics work for arranging a trip like this into a contested area is critical. Sweazey and his team made arrangements weeks in advance to ensure the motorcade had safe passage through each of the checkpoints.
Although the kinds of emergencies Kennesaw State education abroad programs encounter are not as extreme as this, Sweazey still believes it is important to tackle the security of programs with the same attention to detail.
“The last thing I want is to say the world is a scary place,” he says. “Truth is the world isn’t that scary. But, anything can happen. The chances of any student being in a terrorist attack are very small. On the other hand, there are instances of illness, accidents, and criminal acts that we need to be prepared for. It doesn’t need to be a big catastrophe.”
Prepare, Don’t Overwhelm
Ensuring the safety of Kennesaw State University students and faculty is extremely important, but Sweazey is aware that the purpose of education abroad programs is to learn and explore new cultures. He acknowledges that onerous security briefings and preparations can get in the way of this.
“A great plan won’t work if no one is willing to follow it. I could very easily overload these people with all these requirements – all this intel they need to find out – and make their lives miserable. After that, the last thing faculty would want to do is actually teach. I’m trying to avoid that.”
Instead, Sweazey hopes that, by providing faculty with easy-to-follow protocols tailored for the cities and countries where they are traveling, he will reduce the stress faculty may experience during an emergency.
“I want there to essentially be a matrix,” he says. “If they encounter a problem, they know what step one should be, step two, and all the things they need to go through.”
The University Experience
Sweazey left his job at the Secret Service to work with Kennesaw State University because of his deep admiration for academic culture and for working with students.
“I’ve always wanted to work in a university setting,” he says. “Students have so much energy and optimism. I really look forward to working with them.”
He also gained tremendous respect for the Division for Global Affairs in 2013 when he worked with Kennesaw State University to oversee security during Ghanaian President John Mahama’s visit.
“Even during a stressful situation, the [DGA staff] worked well together,” he says. “They remained positive and we actually had fun. That’s something I’m really thrilled to be a part of.”