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President Kevin O'Brien: 

Questions Define an Adventure

Fr. Kevin O’Brien is the president of Santa Clara University, and former dean of SCU’s Jesuit School of Theology. O’Brien served as Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Georgetown for 8 years before coming to Santa Clara in 2016. O’Brien wrote a book “The Ignatian Adventure” in 2011 which sold over 40,000 copies and has been translated into three languages.


Check out this article for more background, but here are a few fun facts:

  • O’Brien’s late father, Larry, spent 35 years as personal manager to the legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus—for whom O’Brien’s older brother Andrew still works.

  • During his Jesuit formation, O’Brien served as a chaplain for the Jesuit Refugee Service in immigration detention centers in Los Angeles and worked serving migrants on the Arizona-Mexico border.

  • O’Brien was featured in a Mic video in 2017 debunking the “war on Christmas.” The video received over 10 million views.


In this conversation, we discuss how Silicon Valley innovation squares with Jesuit values, how students should choose a career, the importance of what O’Brien calls “decentering experiences,” why spirituality is like an adventure, O’Brien’s improbable journey to becoming a Jesuit and more.

Pope Francis 2013.jpg

O'Brien meets Pope Francis in 2013

“We transform students who will then transform the world. There’s no better mission to be involved in.”

Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: How do Silicon Valley values of entrepreneurship and money fit with Jesuit values of faith and compassion?


Kevin O’Brien: I think they’re compatible. The Jesuits began as an entrepreneurial organization in the church. We were founded in the 1500’s, an age of Renaissance and exploration. St. Ignatius of Loyola was an adventurer, deeply ingrained in the world. He founded a religious order of priests who would meet that world. Jesuits were never in monasteries or mountains. They were founded to meet the needs of the world that weren’t being met by anyone else. That’s why our training is so long. I was a decade in before I was ordained. That’s why Jesuits got involved in education.


We embrace tradition, but not tradition as an anchor, but as a rudder to guide us. We have to have flexibility to adapt to needs that aren’t being met. That’s why Jesuits have always tried to be hospitable to other countries. To go into China wearing the clothes of a Mandarin. To learn a culture and engage it. That’s very innovative. A part of our DNA is to embrace innovation as a part of our tradition.


Silicon Valley brings its own particular context. Silicon Valley can help us constantly innovate how we educate, yet at the same time not lose what works and what is good. Keeping the student at the center, being adaptable, but never adapting for the sake of adaptation. What’s neat about the Silicon Valley to Santa Clara relationship is that they deepen our innovative commitment, yet we bring the need to be reflective about what we’re doing.


GC: Many students, and especially seniors, go through a process of career discernment in college. What advice would you give nervous seniors? Will everything be ok?


KOB: It will be ok, if they stay true to who they are. In the end, we want to be authentic. And that means that what we do flows from the deepest sense of who we are. To put a religious lens on it, I think God creates us to be authentic. God wants us to be who God made us to be. The more authentic we are, the more God is delighted. And we can be at peace when life is hard.


One is to put yourself into experiences at Santa Clara where you test yourself, put yourself out of your comfort zone, learn from people different than you. You have quiet and solitude enough to reflect on what you’re doing and who you’re becoming. Part of that identity is what we’re good at. There’s a professor at Boston College Michael Hines who has three questions for career discernment: What gives me joy? Am I good at it? And, does the world need it?


GC: After taking your Jesuit vows, you worked in a leprosy hospital in India. What did you learn from that experience?

Listen to his answer at 13:00


Here’s one quote from the answer:

“It is so important for us at Santa Clara to be decentered. As great of a place as we are, we are not the center of the universe. There are people asking questions that we are not asking, and that we need to listen to. There are people we need to encounter not on our terms, but theirs.”


GC: How can spirituality be like an adventure?


KOB: More and more students identify with no particular religious affiliation. Some people may get nervous about that, but I think that openness and exploration is great. What a great place to do that on a Jesuit campus where we give students the freedom to question.


I think the human person is built to question. I think that shows that one is alive not only intellectually but spiritually. It’s natural to describe one who questions as one who is on an adventure. If your question is sincere, you will be open to grow in a way you haven’t before.


Religiously, one thing we can do is present what religious traditions have to offer. Many questions are probably the same as 100 years ago. I think that’s an exciting thing to happen, not just in a theology class, but also outside class. I think God made us not to be afraid of the question. Your questions show that faith is alive. Questions define an adventure.


GC: What advice would you give an incoming Santa Clara student?


KOB: The advice I would give is to decenter yourself. Be very intentional in immersing yourself in contexts and communities different than you on campus. Hang out with people you normally didn’t hang out with in high school, or get out into San Jose and work with marginalized communities.


GC: Are there any books you recommend?


KOB: A book I read recently is Bryan Stevenson’s "Just Mercy". It also provides a great example of someone being authentic to who they are. In terms of spiritual writing, there’s a Henry Nouwen whose writings have really influenced me. He wrote a beautiful book called “Life of the Beloved,” and he really addresses the longings and questions that most people have.

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