Travel, meet and learn: A priceless experience

Elizabeth O'Brien
Elizabeth O’Brien, International Students Coordinator for the Community College Initiative program at Kirkwood, at work on Thursday, April 8, 2021. PHOTO BY JESSICA MCWILLIAMS.

CONTRIBUTED: From an international student who studied science (genetics and genetic counseling) to an exchange students trainer to the International Students Coordinator for the Community College Initiative (CCI) program at Kirkwood Community College, Elizabeth O’Brien has had many experiences. A native of Palatine, Ill., O’Brien shares her experience traveling and how it changed her perception about culture and how she found love in international education. 

“In high school we had an option, a week-long program to put our Spanish skills to practice,” she stated, which is how her journey of discovery started. Her Spanish host family’s warm reception and her love for genetics influenced her to go back, then the magic happened. The swift change from the field of science to international education is due to her becoming an international student.  

After graduating I went back to Spain to teach English for three years, and during my stay there I met great and phenomenal international students, my friends and my host family shaped my interest in international education,” O’Brien said. “So, when I came back to the United States, I knew international education is where I wanted to spend my career, so I started with non-profits then to training Exchange program with the Department of State then to Kirkwood for the CCI program.” 

As a student coordinator, O’Brien is like a mentor and friend to the international students, which makes her love her job even more. Laboratory work on genetics did not give her the opportunity to mentor and advise people on a more personal basis which international education does.  

She said she gets to interact with the students, learn, share, collaborate, mentor and make life-long relationships with them. During conversation she continuously mentioned how her job allows her to connect with the student and not just be an academic advisor.  

“I also love the fact that my position also allows me to share their successes and fears in their journey and also share with them the American culture of volunteering, giving back and professional development. This has made me more of friend to them than a coordinator or officer,” said O’Brien. 

She made it clear that traveling and her job has made her open minded and exposed to the culture of other people and not just limited to her American nationalist culture which she was taught as a child. Her job brought her to Iowa, a decision she says was not a big deal to her family and herself since she was already used to living elsewhere and also was looking forward to learning more about the people of Iowa and also her CCI students. Being a coordinator has been exciting and intriguing thus, she looks forward to mentoring more international students.  

O’Brien concluded, “I think traveling is the best way to learn, it allows you to immerse yourself in what you are not familiar with. You also learn a lot about the cultures of others and also yourself, because you are put in situation you would never had been in. So, you learn how you react to new situations and it makes you learn how to adjust and adapt to stressful situations. It is a very good learning experience so; I encourage anyone to go abroad even though people argue that the longer you are at abroad you get out of it, but I think even if you stay there for a few days or weeks you still get the opportunity to learn new things.” 

Image courtesy of Jessica McWilliams

Categories: Contributed, Feature