Pam O’Brien has one son, but she counts dozens, maybe even hundreds, of the current and former high school students she’s helped prepare for college and careers “hers.”
They’re part of the family she’s formed over 15 years as the statewide adviser for DECA, an international organization aimed at developing students’ skills in marketing, finance, hospitality and management fields through competitions and other programs.
O’Brien plans the state competition that draws nearly 3,000 students a year, and recently returned from the group’s international conference in Orlando, where 600 North Carolina students competed, did leadership training, and worked with mentors from the business world.
She works with teachers on recruitment and coursework and oversees several scholarship funds. She’s in the middle of a three-year term on the board of the national organization, whose membership recently surpassed 200,000.
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At the state level, DECA membership increased by 24 percent to more than 7,000 in the past three years, including current students and a group recently formed by alumni of the program.
O’Brien says the DECA experience is priceless for many students. They learn to capitalize on one another’s strengths and cooperate. They learn to be on time, and to dress and interact in a professional manner.
For many students who hail from rural areas, as O’Brien does, DECA offers a chance to see new places and interact with students from other states and countries such as Mexico and Germany.
“It gives young people a chance to develop leadership skills, to give back to the community, to see that great big world out there,” she says. “They learn all those soft skills that they don’t necessarily get anywhere else.”
One of “her” students, Eileen Valverde Vindas, says O’Brien was crucial in helping her gain the confidence and skills that earned her admission to Duke University this fall.
“DECA really empowers you in ways you never expected,” says Valverde Vindas, a senior at Holly Springs High School and a former state president of DECA. “And Ms. O’Brien has always been there for us teaching us things every day. She’s so impressive that you want to be like her.”
Love from the start
Known to her students as “P.O.B.,” O’Brien grew up in the tiny Alabama town of Centre. Her own small high school didn’t offer DECA.
She majored in marketing at Auburn University, and also earned her teaching credentials, figuring her outgoing personality would help her succeed in either business or the classroom.
After a short stint working in job placement at a community college, she started teaching high school marketing.
Part of her job was to run the school’s DECA program, and she immediately loved it. She also remembers being impressed with the large and talented group of students from North Carolina.
“They were this group that when they entered, you could just feel the energy and tell they were so proud of what they’d accomplished,” she says.
She says her husband laughed when she told him she wanted to move to North Carolina to work with DECA. But within a year he was offered a teaching job at N.C. State University, and they moved to Raleigh. The couple later divorced.
O’Brien taught marketing courses at South Granville High School and later at Jordan High School in Durham, where she continued to oversee the DECA programs. She says she loved teaching, and found she connected with students easily.
“I’d tell my students, ‘I’m tap dancing as hard as I can up here. You’re going to have to work with me,’” she says.
She took a break when she adopted her son, and was only out of the classroom a year when she was offered a part-time job as the state DECA coordinator.
Dedicated to students
DECA is part curriculum, part club. Teachers of marketing and related topics work DECA activities into their coursework, which students can then use in competitions – a business plan from an entrepreneurship class, for instance.
During club meetings, students prepare for competition and do other activities.
One of their competitions is based on a community service project that they plan and complete, and then present the results. For other competitions, students are given a specific task, such as creating a marketing plan for a sports venue. Other topics might include fashion merchandising or hospitality.
The national DECA organization offers 47 competitive events that states can choose from, and O’Brien makes sure North Carolina students have access to them all.
She works most closely with the students who are elected the club’s state leaders or who travel out of state for the conference. Over the years, she’s taught sibling groups that have all gone to international competitions, and has kept up with many of her former students.
She’s visited their families and once hosted a former student at Christmas. She’s attended their graduations and weddings, and visited babies in DECA onesies.
When Valverde Vindas got to preach at a youth service recently, she was happily surprised to see O’Brien in the audience.
“She showed up to be there for me because it was a big step in my life,” said Valverde Vindas. “That said a lot to me about her dedication.”
O’Brien says her son has been to every state conference since he was 3 years old, and of course participated himself.
“He’ll be the first to tell you it’s a family,” she says.
Like any family, DECA has its challenges. O’Brien often finds herself easing the nerves and disputes that stem from the competitions and persuading young girls to wear their skirts long enough to be deemed professional.
“They’ll fight me and fight me, and then we’ll get to nationals and everyone will stop and tell them how well-dressed they are,” she says.
For some students, the international competitions mark the first time they’ve been on a plane or slept in a hotel.
The group gives out about $20,000 in relatively small scholarships, and O’Brien recently spearheaded a larger scholarship using foundation money.
“We hope one day we will be able to give a full ride,” she says.
She gets teary recalling how thankful her students often are for her help.
“This one kid had just gotten off the stage at nationals and texted me, ‘Thank you for seeing the endless potential in me,’” she says. “It’s humbling because I don’t think I’m doing anything but what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The competitions evolve to stay relevant, in recent years focusing more on writing and oral presentation, as well as writing and research – all skills employers want most. She’s seen many students go on to prestigious colleges and successful careers, but she says it’s still always hard to see them go.
“It’s always bittersweet,” she says. “When I talk to the seniors, I always tell them, ‘My wish for you is that you find something you like to do as much as I like doing this.’”
Born: July 1965, Centre, Ala.
Career: N.C. DECA Adviser
Education: B.S. Marketing and Distributive Education, Auburn University
Family: Son Colin
Fun Fact: When it was founded in 1946, DECA originally stood for “Distributive Education Clubs of America.” The group dropped that outdated term for vocational programs in marketing, but kept the letters that make its name.