Dr. Nancy O’Brien stood behind her desk in a cluttered office surrounded by boxes. Stacks of books about other countries sat on shelves, and photos of exotic lands rested against the walls, waiting to be hung. The new Intercultural Experiences director for the Honors College was still unpacking, but that wouldn’t keep her from her day’s work.
O’Brien has a passion for intercultural and study abroad programs and spends her days at the University reviewing faculty members’ proposals for new trips and experiences. With Honors students making up about 40 percent of the University’s study abroad participants, O’Brien plays a heavy role in the international education process.
“The reason that I’m in this role is because of sort of the life that I’ve led, which has been an intercultural life,” she said.
O’Brien went on a study abroad trip to Germany to take a six-month intercultural communication course during her undergraduate studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. That trip excited her about cross-culture communication.
“I had the bug in me after that experience to get abroad,” she said. “I knew at that point, the world was a lot bigger than what I grew up with in Minnesota.”
The next stop in O’Brien’s intercultural life was Japan where she taught English for three years at a private school. This began what O’Brien calls her “international, intercultural career.” She traveled back to Germany where she again taught English, this time in a corporate training setting.
“That was about seven years of international/intercultural immersion for me and that really has set the tone of what I’m doing here today,” O’Brien said.
She returned to the United States to earn her master’s degree in international and intercultural management at the University of Vermont and her doctorate in educational policy at the University of Minnesota. She began to teach communication classes and soon realized she wanted to work in higher education.
“I knew I wanted to help other people get there, on intercultural experiences,” O’Brien said. “After my experience in Japan, I knew I wanted to help other people get to have the chance that I had just had in Japan.”
The position in the Honor’s College was the first position she applied for. She had never lived in the South and saw it as another chance for cultural immersion and a new experience. The position also offered the chance to work specifically with the Honors College’s smaller group of about 7,000 students.
“It was a great fit,” she said. “I was actually going to get to teach courses in the Honors College, but also be an administrator and help with the intercultural programs. That combination was really appealing.”
O’Brien aids professors in getting their idea through the approval process and going through the necessary steps to make the program a success. She said her favorite part of her job is the time she spends with other faculty members developing new programs.
“Every trip needs to meet with study abroad. There are a lot of practical things that have to happen when we get closer to our trip,” O’Brien said. “For now, I’m dealing with the fun part, which is looking at the creative pieces of how to pull together a trip and design a quality curriculum.”
Carolina Robinson, director of Education Abroad at Capstone International, works closely with O’Brien daily. The two of them communicate constantly about ideas for programs, the approval process, finalizing budgets, and any other details that must be handled for a trip to go smoothly.
“Dr. O’Brien is a great help for the Honors programs because not every other college has somebody like her who can help facilitate the communication or questions or be a support for the professors,” Robinson said.
The most important part of a study abroad trip for O’Brien is the cultural exchanges that take place between students. The classroom learning is important, but the true value of study abroad lies in the experiences students have while they are overseas.
“They’re going to interact with other students, with other peers their age. That’s what they love,” she said. “That’s what I loved when I went on study abroad trips. I took a lot of courses but I remember the experiences.”
The cultural exchange goes two ways. While American students visiting a foreign country are expected to benefit by learning about different cultures, people often overlook how Americans bring a sense of their own culture to each country they visit. O’Brien sees this as an opportunity for the students to help those they meet understand American culture as well.
These two, three, or four-week trips are generally offered in late spring or the summer and appeal to students because of affordability.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more of these trips. They’re doable. They’re practical,” O’Brien said. “Students can afford them both time-wise and money-wise. Faculty like these trips as they can often be incorporated into their semester curriculum or added for a summer program.”
O’Brien sees this as a time of change for intercultural programs across campus and the Honors College as the starting point for a lot of opportunities. The sheer number involved means that almost every aspect of campus and area of study is represented.
“I think that the great thing is you have Dr. O’Brien there who has a lot of background knowledge in international education and international experiences,” Robinson said. “If I were a student and had access to somebody like her, I would love to kind of pick her brain to locations of where to go.”
With all the opportunities facing Honors students, some are challenged to find the right program to fit their interests, whether it is deciding between two trips or simply not knowing a trip exists because it was lost in the list of opportunities.
“I see my role here in the Honors College as an ‘intercultural experiences broker’ of sorts,” O’Brien said. “That is, in addition to my focus on assisting faculty and students in building new programs and global partnerships, I want to help students find the intercultural experience that is right for them.”
Intercultural skills are something O’Brien feels all students will need in order to interact in an increasingly global society. She sees the importance behind study abroad, but also wants students to enjoy meeting new people in a foreign country.
“We need to make sure they are using their minds but we also want to give them the chance to use their hearts, too,” she said. “We want them to really communicate across cultures, see people, listen to their stories, and get to know them.”
O’Brien sees herself as a bit of an adventurer and hopes to encourage that in others. She hopes students will continue to look for opportunities and seek out more intercultural experiences.
“I really enjoy my work, and I enjoy this job a lot. I enjoy the students immensely, and I like to have a lot of fun,” O’Brien said.