Jen O’Brien ’00: Building Foundations, Raising Expectations
When Jen O’Brien ’00 was a high school senior in Connecticut, she couldn’t have known one day she would have a retired basketball jersey hanging in John M. Belk Arena, be a member of the Davidson Athletics Hall of Fame or that she would eventually make her home in Charlotte, N.C. What she did know was she wanted to pursue basketball at a small Division I school with a high focus on academics.
O’Brien was recruited by schools from conferences all along the East Coast, so in the summer of 1995, she and her father embarked on a college tour that took them from Massachusetts down to the Carolinas.
From the moment she stepped onto Davidson’s campus, Jen says she had a gut feeling it was the perfect fit for her. She contacted then Head Coach John Filar and, although he had no idea she was planning to visit, he and Assistant Coach Claire Gardin took the time to meet with Jen and her father and showed them Belk Arena. This initial encounter left Jen with a positive impression of the school’s welcoming atmosphere. Two months later, she returned for an official visit, hosted by team members Carolyn Kirsch ’97 and Monica Winter ’97. It was during this visit that Jen felt even more certain that she had found her home away from home—and she later learned the feeling was mutual.
In addition to the beautiful campus and welcoming community, O’Brien was inspired by the impressive basketball arena and the opportunity to help the program make its mark in the Southern Conference.
“I didn’t want to join a program that was already fully established and atop the conference standings,” O’Brien said. “I was drawn to Davidson because of the idea of being able to contribute on the court right away. More importantly, I could be part of a larger team effort to help establish the program’s foundation and shape the culture.”
During her career at Davidson, there were a lot of program firsts, including beating Southern Conference foe Furman at home and beating Georgia Tech her sophomore year.
“Beating an ACC team on their floor was not an expectation anyone had,” she said.
During O’Brien’s junior year, the team made a conference championship run, falling short in the finals, but setting new expectations for the program.
“As I look back and see how far the program has come, it’s simply awesome,” she said. “The expectations are much higher now. That’s a credit to all the women—past and present—who have done their part to strengthen the foundation of the program.”
O’Brien and her teammates have stayed in touch, with their connections often focused on Davidson.
“After all these years, my memories are not so much the on-court wins and losses,” she said. “It’s more about bonding with my teammates and the investment we had in each other for Davidson, and it’s about the many life-long friendships that began on campus with other students, staff and professors outside of our basketball program. For such a short period of time in our lives, we could not have foreseen the impact of our Davidson experience. It is exciting to see the investment in the future of our women’s program, and I am thrilled we have the leadership of Head Coach Gayle Fulks.”
O’Brien, who received the Douglas H. Stickney Scholarship as a student, cheers on the Wildcats in person every chance she gets, and she is invested in the future of the program.
“It’s important to give back because Davidson has given me so much,” she said. “My scholarship made it possible for me to attend, and I had a truly wonderful experience. Whether I’m lending a hand to someone in the Davidson network or helping to improve something at Davidson, I’m all for it and eager to give back in any way I can!”
Title IX recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and O’Brien is grateful for the women who led the way for today’s athletes.
“It’s really exciting to be a female athlete at this time,” she said. “There are so many more opportunities out there today because of all the people who sacrificed, stood up and took on more than their traditional job roles. ‘Coach’ was often the team’s bus driver. A lot of women wore many hats to allow this generation of scholar-athletes to be where they are.”
Now a client executive in Charlotte for a software company called Pegasystems, O’Brien credits her scholar-athlete experience with setting her on a path to success. Her Division I experience and leadership role as team captain has helped to set her apart when applying for new jobs and also armed her with a well-rounded, marketable skill set.
“I lean on my athletic experience in everything I do,” she said. “Being a Davidson scholar-athlete is almost like getting a Ph.D. in leadership, resiliency, how to collaborate, be competitive—traits that contribute to success in work and in life.”
O’Brien was inducted into the Davidson Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011, and her jersey was retired in 2018.