New ISSO director shares background with world experience


Courtesy of Inside Iowa State and Christopher Gannon

Brendan O’Brien is the new director of the International Students and Scholars Office. His first day was Aug. 1.

Logan Metzger

The International Students and Scholars Office announced in August that a new director has been chosen. His name is Brendan O’Brien and he comes with a background full of world experience.

O’Brien is from Schenectady, New York and said he had the “typical American suburban experience” while growing up.

“There wasn’t a lot of diversity in my high school,” O’Brien said. “And it was the 1970’s and we all had bad haircuts.”

Throughout high school O’Brien said he took academics as secondary and really focused most of his energy on the sport of basketball. He said he viewed sports as a way to get him into college.

From high school, he attended Hobart College in Geneva, New York, where he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history. He said he loved the college environment, but it was somewhat confining, which led to his travels.

“At a certain point in college I realized I wanted to learn more about the world,” O’Brien said. “I realized I wasn’t going to play in the NBA but I just wanted to explore.”

During his junior year at Hobart, O’Brien took a semester abroad to Nairobi, Kenya, which he said was really his first time out of the country.

“It opened up my eyes to the world in general,” O’Brien said. “It made me want to learn more about Africa and other parts of the world, it made me interested in making connections around the world. It made me realize that there is so much about the world that I didn’t know.”

Later, during his senior year at Hobart, O’Brien took another semester abroad to Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz with volunteers from all over the world. He said that during his time there he learned a lot about the religions and politics of the Middle East and also how different people viewed the United States.

Then, just like that, O’Brien was out of college and thrust into the real world and didn’t know what to do with his experiences. He did various jobs, which included working with troubled youth, working in the food industry and coaching basketball.

His largest and most interesting odd job was when he taught English in Taiwan for a year. While there, O’Brien taught adults who already had experience with English the complexities of conversational English and helped them gain confidence in speaking English.

After that year in Taiwan, O’Brien said that he traveled through Asia for a while, kind of like a backpacking trip. He spent two months traveling through China and also traveled through Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

O’Brien then decided to go back to school and attended the State University of New York at Albany, where he received a master’s in public administration with a concentration in comparative and international development. During his time at Albany he also studied in France.

While looking for something to do on campus, O’Brien said he stumbled upon an opportunity to join the International Students and Scholars Office there, which really jump started his career.

“It was kind of an accidental situation — I was out with some friends and I said that I was looking for a job, and someone who was already working in the International Students Office said she was leaving and that I might be interested in replacing her,” O’Brien said. “It was an opening to a career that I didn’t know existed and really suited my interests and temperament.”

After graduating from Albany, O’Brien worked with an organization called the Africa-America Institute, where he helped exchange students from Africa find schools in the United States to study at.

“It was a wonderful job, but the hardest challenge was trying to pay rent while working for a non-profit in New York City,” O’Brien said.

From there O’Brien found himself at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he worked in the International Students and Scholars Office for 29 years, first as associate director (1989-98) and then as director (1998-2018).

O’Brien said his favorite moments were when he was able to help students through hard times and see them come up and thrive at the end of it.

O’Brien then landed on another lucky encounter. His mentor, who was the director at Cornell before O’Brien took over the position and an Iowa State alumni, told him about the position at Iowa State and he applied. O’Brien said he had never been to the state of Iowa before his interview at Iowa State and was really awed by it.

O’Brien has been in his position as the director of International Students and Scholars Office since Aug. 1 and said he loves Ames and the amazing staff at the International Students and Scholars Office, and he is excited to continue working with them.

His goals for his position include expanding upon things the International Students and Scholars Office is already doing, but also hearing from students to see what their needs are and how the International Students and Scholars Office can help them.