Semester Abroad Helps Justin O’Brien Launch International Career
By Becky Kramer
Without his study abroad experience, Justin O’Brien says he probably wouldn’t have ended up in a global sales career at Boeing.
The semester he spent in Italy was vital to his advancement at the Fortune 100 company and aerospace giant, says the Carson College alumnus. Two years after O’Brien started working at Boeing, he interviewed for a short-term assignment in Venice.
“During the interview, I talked about how I had lived in Italy, knew the language, and understood the culture,” says O’Brien (’04 Mgmt. Op, Honors.) “Three days later, I was on a plane to Venice, where I spent several months buying parts for a passenger jet we stripped down to the frame and converted into an air cargo plane.”
During a 15-year career at Boeing, O’Brien has worked with clients from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. He’s currently the country manager for the United Kingdom and Morocco in Boeing’s global sales and marketing division.
“I would not be in the position I am in today if it wasn’t for my study abroad experience,” O’Brien says. “It gave me an appreciation for international travel, and it got me interested in working at a company with global connections.”
Finding the right challenge in Italy
Studying abroad was on O’Brien’s list of goals for college. But as he considered the choices, he wrestled with what kind of experience he wanted. By studying in the United Kingdom or Australia—or even a large, cosmopolitan city—he wouldn’t have language barriers or a high level of culture shock. But O’Brien knew he wouldn’t challenge himself as much, either.
O’Brien eventually picked the University of Macerata, an institution in central Italy that dates back to medieval times. He was in a town of 40,000 people, where he stuck out as a foreigner. He was forced to speak Italian outside of his classes, which were taught in English.
“Everyday things you take for granted—like buying groceries—become challenging,” O’Brien says. “You have to have a lot of patience with the language barrier.”
He also left on his study abroad a few months after 9-11, “so many of the students had dropped out,” he says. “When I arrived at Macerata, I didn’t know anyone.”
That quickly changed. O’Brien formed bonds with other students in the program and was soon socializing with Italian students who wanted to practice their English. During spring break, O’Brien took the train to Sicily with friends. When classes ended for the summer, he bought a Eurail pass, loaded up his backpack, and traveled to a dozen countries. He spent a week in Prague with Ohio State University students he had met on the train.
“I came back a much more confident person—even my parents remarked on it,” O’Brien says. “I was on the shyer side, but I was forced out of my comfort zone. I met people from all over the world. You discover the things you have in common and build on that to develop relationships.”
Developing confidence and a respect for others
Testimonials like O’Brien’s are familiar to Jessica Cassleman, the college’s assistant dean for International Programs and director of the International Business Institute. She hears similar stories from many students about their study abroad experiences. Because of the benefits, the college encourages all students to consider studying abroad.
“Students who have lived in another country gain a self-assurance and confidence—and a respect for others—that employers find very attractive,” Cassleman says.
O’Brien encourages college students to think of studying abroad as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and to take advantage of it.
“Having an international background and those kind of experiences are thought of positively within the professional world,” he says.
During his time in Italy, O’Brien developed an interest in other cultures that continues to benefit his career.
“In my work, building positive customer relationships is really important,” O’Brien says. “If you have a sense of curiosity and a genuine appreciation for other cultures, it goes a long way.”