Student graduating from Iowa State — 20 years after starting college in Brazil

Patricia O'Connell

Patricia O'Connell is finishing at Iowa State University this weekend what she had to pause 20 years ago in Brazil: a bachelor's degree in psychology. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa — Two decades after Patricia O’Connell had to suspend her education amid a teacher strike, she’s finally finishing at Iowa State University what she started in Brazil.

O’Connell, who’s originally from Juiz de Fora, Brazil, is receiving her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Iowa State this weekend.

During her last semester in Brazil in the 1990s, her university shut down due to teacher strikes. The same semester, O’Connell met the American who would become her husband. They moved to Las Vegas and after he finished his degree, he got a job in Iowa and they moved to West Des Moines 16 years ago.

O’Connell became a stay-at-home mother and eventually a fitness instructor. Her drive to make Des Moines’ Brazilian community feel at home led her to create the Brazilian Cultural Center, a nonprofit that promotes Brazilian culture and supports Brazilians living in Iowa. She also co-founded Brazilian Moves, a dance group in Des Moines. But something was missing.

“Finishing my college degree was always something in my head that I wanted to do,” she said. “Working with fitness I started to notice that a lot of people want to work out – they know the benefit of exercise – but they just don’t do it. So, I started to think about how I could put both my experience with psychology and fitness together.”

That thought led her to Iowa State.

Finding a home at Iowa State

Catching a CyRide bus during her first semester, O’Connell pulled out a paper map to find her way. Another student stopped her to point out — politely, O’Connell noted — that CyRide has a mobile app.

“I remember the first day I felt totally lost,” she said. “Those little things show that it was 20 years ago that I was in college.”

Despite being older than her classmates — O’Connell’s oldest son is 19 years old — she said she always felt welcome and included at Iowa State. Plus, she saw her age difference as an advantage.

“I really feel the difference from 20 years ago,” she said. “Then, you go and you have fun; you don’t think that it’s really important sometimes what you’re reading. Now I read like I want to know all of these things. I know I need this. I want to use this. It’s different going to school when you’re older. The college experience is different, but it’s very good.”

Even the process of applying for admission to Iowa State solidified her inkling that she wanted to be a Cyclone.

“Since the first day, everyone at Iowa State was very receptive and always tried to help me the most they could,” she said. “They had to transfer all these classes from another country and from a while ago, but they always showed they were willing to help me. They were so welcoming that it really motivated me to keep trying, to finish the paperwork. That was a big deal for me to decide to come back and finish this.”

Hard work, sacrifices pay off

O’Connell appreciates that Iowa State is a research university, and that faculty are dedicated to helping students become better researchers. She said Alison Phillips, assistant professor of psychology, was an important mentor as she finished the psychology degree she started years prior.

“At the time, I chose psychology because it was very easy for me to be empathetic with people, and to try to help in the way I could,” she said.

But she was stumped about what to do after graduation.

“I was kind of lost. I knew what I wanted to do but I couldn’t name it,” O’Connell said. “Dr. Phillips guided me to this goal of now going to get my master’s degree in public health and working as a health educator.”

O’Connell will get her master’s degree online in order to fit her life, which includes three children and working at the Brazilian Cultural Center.

Recently, O’Connell handed her graduation invitation to one of her sons. Later she saw he had displayed it in his bedroom.

“I said that’s for you to remember that it’s never too late to be what you want to be,” she said.

O’Connell can’t help but cry when she thinks about finally getting her bachelor’s degree.

“Maybe for some people it’s not a big deal, because it’s not a master’s degree yet for my age, but for me it’s a big deal because I could just as easily not do it,” she said. “It was hard. It was not an easy decision. You need to make a lot of choices and sacrifice some things.”

Perhaps now those homework nightmares O’Connell has had for the last 20 years can finally be put to rest.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, I need to finish this. I cannot have this nightmare forever,’” she laughed.