Worthington native named college president
BROOKLYN PARK -- When John O'Brien was growing up in Worthington, he had no aspirations of being a college-level administrator -- he just wanted to teach. But O'Brien was recently named president of North Hennepin Community College, and he's up for the challenge.
"I've sometimes been described as an English major gone terribly wrong," he said with a laugh. "But I love what I do and feel lucky to have the opportunities I have."
O'Brien, 47, was appointed to the post by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) Board of Trustees, succeeding Ann Wynia, who is retiring. The appointment takes effect on July 1.
"It's such an honor to be appointed president of North Hennepin Community College," O'Brien said. "It's a gem in the system. The quality of the faculty and staff is first rate. And the campus is rich with many kinds of diversity."
A 1980 graduate of Worthington High School, O'Brien is the son of Bev O'Brien of Worthington and the late Carl O'Brien. He graduated in 1984 from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., with a degree in English and education and minor in speech, communications and theater, followed by a teaching stint at O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls.
Through the Rotary international scholarship program, O'Brien studied Irish literature at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, earning a master's degree. He also has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota.
"I taught at Augustana College, at a number of colleges in the Twin Cities and at Normandale Community College for half a dozen years," he detailed during a phone interview.
More recently, O'Brien served as acting president of Century College in White Bear Lake, where the student senate nominated him for the Minnesota State College Student Association 2008-2009 "President of the Year" honor. Prior to that appointment, he was Century's academic vice president, a job that included the development of the college's academic plan, development of innovative programs and curriculum and a partnership resulting in a system-wide Access and Opportunity Center of Excellence.
"What drew me to teaching," acknowledged O'Brien. "was wanting to make a difference in the lives of our students. As I took on leadership responsibilities, I learned that there was important work to do -- and that I could make a difference there, too."
O'Brien is particularly passionate about diversity issues, an interest that he recently realized harkened back to his formative years in Worthington when the city welcomed a number of refugee families.
"North Hennepin is very diverse, and I have a lot of interest in working in this kind of environment," he shared. "I remember when Worthington had its first influx of people from Vietnam, and I used to go and play pingpong with some of the Vietnamese kids in high school during lunch. When I was interviewing for this job I was asked was 'When did you first get interested in diversity?' and I realized that it was probably playing pingpong."
Before he begins his new post in July, O'Brien is trying to wrap up work on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Students First Initiative, a "state-wide effort to make student services more responsive to the changing needs of students." He took a one-year leave from Century to focus on Students First, which is comprised of six individual but interdependent projects.
"The Students First project is a labor of love," he acknowledged, "because I've worked for many years to see our online systems work better for our students, and that's what Students First is all about."
As he looks toward leading the administration at North Hennepin Community College, O'Brien anticipates that there will be some new challenges ahead, especially in light of anticipated budget cuts throughout educational systems. But he looks forward to meeting those challenges and to being at the forefront of changes he foresees in education.
"The way we deliver courses is changing, the demographic of our students is changing," he explained. "We have so many adult learners now, with different needs and different expectations. ... It's just so rewarding to work with faculty and staff who are so idealistic and unwavering in wanting to change the world. It's a real privilege."
O'Brien and his wife, Kathryn, currently live in south Minneapolis with their two children, Alex, 15, and Thessaly, 13. His son, Nathan, is currently a junior at the University of Minnesota.