Terry O’Brien is a helper by nature. Now a senior academic advisor with the O’Neill School, she’s been with IUPUI for nearly a decade.
“I do this job because I want to help and support our students,” she says. “This is about more than just what classes they need to take next. It’s a college experience and I can help them map it out and make the most of their time here.”
Her career in helping began in social services, providing case management, supervised visitation, and employment services working for organizations that served clients involved with Indiana’s Department of Child Services.
“I knew when I was ready to leave that field, I would transition into advising in higher education,” she says.
That’s because O’Brien says she didn’t have the best advising experience when she was a first-generation undergraduate student.
“I had to teach myself what I needed to know and ended up helping friends and classmates when they had questions,” she admits.
It was a lot to learn on her own but it was also the catalyst for a career she loves.
After spending three years in IUPUI’s University College and working with transfer students, she joined O’Neill in 2016 as an academic advisor. It wasn’t long before she also began leading O’Neill’s student employees and began teaching a first-year seminar course where she helps freshmen begin their college careers.
“Our students are really passionate,” she says. “Our tagline—Major in Making a Difference—really fits our students. They almost always come in with big dreams and goals for how to better our community, state, or planet. It’s my job to help them figure out how to meet their goals.”
And O’Brien is great at her job. In 2020, she received the Outstanding Advising Award from NACADA: the Global Community for Academic Advising. The year before that, she was named Academic Advisor of the Year by the IUPUI Jaguar Academic Advising Association. But awards aren’t how O’Brien measures her success.
“It’s when I show students all their options and see them realize they can do all the things they want to do,” she says. “Students will say things like ‘Oh my gosh, you saved me’ and I can see their exasperation turn to relief. It’s really fulfilling to know that you can help alleviate those feelings for someone, just by talking to them, answering their questions, and showing them how pieces fit together.”
O’Brien says being a sounding board is often a huge part of her job. She says her job is to listen to what they want to do or how they’re feeling and present them with options. But she wants students to make their own decisions.
“It’s their experience and their degree—everything has to be their choice,” she explains. “I want to empower them to take control of their situation. I help them navigate their own questions and find answers.”
The weight of making those decisions can be a challenge for many students who come into her office.
“When a student comes into a meeting with me and they’re stressed, I’m able to talk them through the situation and provide them with resources,” she says. “I remind them to give themselves grace and that we can figure out things that may seem impossible or overwhelming. You can see the relief on their faces and in their body language.”
She sees the change in students in her office every day and at the end of every academic year. For her, the payoff for her work is seeing students she met as freshmen overcome their challenges and turn their tassels at commencement before heading off into a career they love.
“I can follow a student from freshman year to commencement or into grad school,” she says smiling. “It’s a proud moment for me to see them come full circle and know that I played a part in that.”