Jan O'Brien

O’Brien Reflects on Three Decades of Academic Advising

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

A career full of memories sits inside Jan O’Brien’s desk. For 32 years, she advised, mentored, guided, and helped thousands of students through their college years. Each time one of those students wrote her a letter or sent her a card, she tucked it inside her desk to remember the impact of her day-to-day work. A mainstay in the Undergraduate Program office, most recently as the director of student services and academic advising, O’Brien is set to retire June 1.

Jan O'Brien thank you notes
A collection of thank you notes given to Jan O'Brien from students over the years. O'Brien is retiring June 1 after spending more than three decades in academic advising at the Carlson School.

“There are even notes here and there from students that you didn’t actually realize you had an impact on,” she reflects. “You get that surprise thank you and it’s quite gratifying, quite rewarding. I’ve repeatedly told the advising staff, ‘you make a difference every single day.’ That’s why I’ve stayed here so long.”

In total, O’Brien spent 40 years at the University, first in dining services before moving to the Carlson School in 1989 after earning her master’s degree. Since then, she’s seen significant changes. For example, freshmen were not admitted to the Carlson School until 1996. 

“[Prior to 1996] we focused all of our attention on helping students transfer into the school, mostly as juniors,” she says. “We had them for a little while and then they’d be gone. We really didn’t have time to spend with them or engage much with them.”

When the Carlson School became one of the first business schools to begin admitting first-year students and the academic standards raised, O’Brien says there was a shift in students’ mentality when it came to advising and a shift in how we approached our work. 

 “I think previous generations didn’t go to their academic advisors; they just read the catalog,” she says. “But what we’ve learned over time is that students appreciate the partnerships and parents appreciate knowing that their student has somebody here who is going to help them. We want to be value-added, and I think this generation of students see that more now.”

Throughout her countless advising appointments, there is one type of student she found the most rewarding to work with. 

“I love working with a student who, for various reasons, stopped out after their first try but returns with a different life, goals, and mindset,” O’Brien says. “Those are the ones that stick out in my mind. They had to overcome so much.” One of her last advising students is also one of the most memorable. Earlier this month, 78-year-old Kay Lacher earned her bachelor’s degree, after a 40-year gap. O’Brien guided Lacher through the bureaucracy and the pandemic, to make her long-sought-after degree a reality. Lacher made such an impact, O’Brien agreed to a rare TV interview in the closing days of her career.

In the pile of thank you notes in her desk are dozens of examples of students who overcame odds to graduate thanks to the guidance from O’Brien.

“This work is really, really rewarding and that’s what’s kept me here for so long,” O’Brien says. “I’ve always enjoyed this generation and this age. I like people and the uniqueness of people and figuring them out. I’ve enjoyed them and my work.”

What’s next? More hiking, family time, and new hobbies. But, impacting lives is sure to remain a constant.