Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Andy O'Brien joined the Navy after graduating from high school. It was while he was assigned to NATO and living in Italy that he decided to move to Burlington, Vermont.
"My partner and I had decided we wanted to live on the east coast so we could be within easy driving distance of our parents," he explains. Andy and his partner had also heard great things about Burlington from various friends. Ultimately, they made their decision based on job opportunities. "We chose Burlington because of the strong social services job market my partner's field and the availability of technical work for me at IBM, should I need it."
It wasn't until after they arrived that Andy decided to enroll in the University of Vermont. "Upon moving here," he explains, "I thought it was clear that UVM offered the best educational opportunities in the area."
Great Teachers Spark Interest in Computer Science
Andy had worked in radio communications in the Navy but, after reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, chose to pursue a UVM degree in history. Feeling divorced from what he considers the issues most important to human beings, he intended to earn a history degree and then teach high school or pursue a degree in law. But a few computer science and math classes changed his mind.
"[They made me] remember how stimulating that sort of work can be," he says. "It gradually became clear that I was learning something about myself and that I needed to reevaluate, or rather re-balance, my career choice and so I decided to pursue a career in computer science." He chose to stay at UVM because he found working with the Sensor Network and Wireless Workgroup to be very stimulating. "It allows me to integrate my radio experience with my interest in computer science," he explains, "particularly geographical mapping."
When asked if there were any CEMS faculty members that had been particularly influential, Andy didn't hesitate to name two: Mary Cox, a lecturer in the Math Department, and Sean Wang, interim chair of the Computer Science Department.
"Mary killed my math anxiety while showing me many fine things about the properties of organized bodies of information," Andy says. "She also gave me excellent advice, which greatly helped to organize my priorities. My decision to pursue a career in computer science was heavily influenced by her counsel."
"Sean Wang," he continues, "has taught me a great deal about who computer scientists are and why they are that way. He helped me understand that computer science is a science of abstraction. He has also given me excellent career advice and, perhaps most importantly, believed in my capability."
Andy has found the computer science department to be a very welcoming place. "I very much enjoy working there," he says, "and am excited about the possibilities for collaborative interdisciplinary work."
One key to the success of students in the Computer Science department at CEMS is the excellence of the facilities available to students. CEMS boasts many well-equipped computer labs and commits three full-time staff members to the installation and maintenance of facilities.
"It's a very rare occasion when there isn't a high-quality workstation readily available that offers a choice of operating systems and nearly all the application software I need," Andy says. "Jim White, Victor Rossi and manager Tim Raymond provide amazing support. Overall, the facilities are better endowed and supported than anything I experienced while working for the government."
Well-Rounded Students Better Prepared to Be Leaders
CEMS Dean Domenico Grasso believes that CEMS students should receive a rigorous education in math, computer science or engineering accompanied by an education in the humanities, resulting in well-rounded students who graduate from CEMS prepared to be leaders.
This theory resonates with Andy. "I read the article Dean Grasso wrote a couple of years ago on the issue and was very impressed by it. Reading that article was one of those rare moments when something observed became something better understood."
Learning how to learn, according to Andy, is the real benefit of a college education, not the particular facts one brings away from the experience. He believes that placing a greater emphasis on the liberal arts in CEMS will help his fellow students better understand not only the import of their work, but the importance of their work of others. "I think the path Dean Grasso is setting to be both the best and most responsible for the school and society," Andy says.
In addition to his busy academic schedule, Andy makes the time to be outside and stays active by walking, swimming, camping and cycling. When asked about his future plans, there was no hesitation in Andy's response: "I'm going to continue to learn about myself and strive to place myself in positions that provide a balance of theoretical, practical and social stimulation. I've found that teaching speaks to many important parts of me and fulfills those conditions nicely. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself in that capacity in the future."