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Shannon O’Brien, Minerva, Bolivia

Shannon O’Brien went from teaching English in Japan to leading one of Bolivia’s only education agencies, where she now sends hundreds of Bolivian students to study abroad. The PIE talks to her about her journey and Bolivia’s diversifying market trends.


Photo: Shannon O'Brien

There is a growing amount of students that are going abroad as first generation students

Shannon O’Brien joins many others in saying that, when she first came into the international education industry, she had no idea about the massive world she was getting into. 

Founding Minerva Consultores Academicos 12 years ago, O’Brien hasn’t left that world since. She works with four other members of a tight-knit team to help Bolivian students achieve their dreams of studying abroad – wherever in the country they might be from. 

“A good portion of the country is slightly more westernised, in places like Santa Cruz, students from that area are generally well travelled. Whereas nearer La Paz, there is a very large indigenous population, some who have never left Bolivia. 

“However, those people are very keen on sending their children abroad and really invest in their child’s future. In that part of the country it’s getting increasingly popular,” O’Brien explains. 

She mentions that there is a growing amount of students that are going abroad as first generation students. 

“They’re very protective of their kids. Also they have, on occasion, suffered discrimination in the country and are worried that that may happen abroad, so you have to really cater to each individual’s needs and worries, because they all have different issues.” 

Having called Santa Cruz her home for 25 years, O’Brien aims to cater for each and every student that passes through Minerva’s doors, but she’s had experience dealing with students since before her time there. 

After a stint working in banks in her native Vancouver, she saw an advert to teach in Japan, and she jumped at it. 

It was there that she then taught English to children, gaining valuable experience in education. 

She also ended up exploring not just Japanese culture, but an unexpected diaspora right in the heart of Osaka. 

“We were biking around town and we smelled a barbecue. We ended up at this football pitch and there were different groups of Latin people having huge barbecues and playing soccer.

“There’s an incredible number of Spanish speaking people in Japan”

“Turns out, there’s an incredible number of Spanish speaking people in Japan.”

It was there she met her husband, who is Bolivian, and they made the decision to move to his home country. She continued to teach English, until she became a principal, then a university official, where she eventually found her expertise in study abroad, leading to Minerva’s inception.

“We opened up our consulting agency, and it just started booming – and keeps getting busier even now – despite Bolivia having constant political upheaval. 

“It really helps our business in some respects because the parents really would prefer that their kids study abroad.” 

While Bolivia is not the biggest of source markets for major destinations in numbers, it is making headway with increasingly European destinations and, as ever, continues to see students go to the US. 

It started out with only US interest, O’Brien recalls, but its soaring prices are making it increasingly trickier to justify. That’s why, she says, more started going towards destinations like Germany and Canada, and now Spain.

“Spain was quite a surprise to us. We’ve signed agreements with a number of universities there because of how popular it is and these are universities that teach in either Spanish or English or only in English.

“Although they want to go to Spain, they still prefer to study in English,” she notes. Portugal, Hungary and the Czech Republic are emerging destinations too. 

“[Bolivians] really invest in their child’s future”

“They’re just starting out, but because they have such great price points that they’re becoming very attractive,” O’Brien says.

Visa processing delays was an issue that hit Bolivia particularly hard. O’Brien is confident that destinations like Canada and Australia would get many more applications if it wasn’t such a complex, slow process.

“The EU has really fast visa processing and it helps them a lot, but Canada and even the UK is more complex and it takes longer,” she relents.

Governments in countries such as Panama famously offer scholarships to certain numbers of students so they are able to study abroad. O’Brien’s frustration lies with her own adopted country’s government for the lack of that provision.

“I’d love to have that. I really hope that eventually the government starts investing a little bit in the education of the people.

“There’s nothing worse than a kid who comes in, who is brilliant, deserving, has done everything they need to do and just has zero budget. You try to find scholarships everywhere that you can but it never covers everything, so we need some government assistance.”

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