Olga Cordero-Brana grew up outside of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, in a small farming community where few people were educated. Cordero-Brana's father, a truck driver, only completed second grade. Her mother, although academically talented, only completed seventh grade before her parents decided to no longer allow her or her siblings to attend school. Cordero-Brana's grandparents were land owners and farmers. The whole family lived on the farm.
Cordero-Brana grew up in a large family. She has two brothers and three sisters. One sister (Minerva) has a PhD in Mathematics, one has a MS in chemistry and the third has a MS in Computer Science.
Cordero-Brana's mother encouraged her children to value Education. She wanted all of her daughters to attend college, but to choose an "easier" career like being a secretary so they could have a more traditional life. Cordero-Brana did not agree. She wanted to study medicine. Her mother talked her out it because only children from wealthy families studied medicine and she would have to take labs which were taught at night and she didn't want her daughter out alone at night. Cordero-Brana then decided to study mathematics, which pleased her mother. Her father died when she went to college; her mother before she finished her PhD.
Cordero-Brana had very good mathematics teachers from first through twelfth grade. Her teachers encouraged her to study and do well in mathematics. She never felt cheated. Her teachers were proud of her and her sisters. The first time she felt "different" was when she went to Iowa to study and was labeled a minority.
After earning her BS, Cordero-Brana worked with an engineering firm in Puerto Rico. She was placed in the electrical engineering department doing computer work and government contract proposals. One of her former professors encouraged her to apply to graduate school at the University of Iowa. She was accepted with a fellowship. At the same time she was offered a job with the Social Security Administration. It was a difficult decision: "Should I accept the job or the offer from the University of Iowa?" She received telephone calls from the Associate Dean of Graduate Programs at Iowa and a professor in the mathematics department. Those calls influenced her decision. She went to Iowa, earning two MS degrees; one in mathematics, one in statistics. She moved to Utah and attended Utah State University where she earned her PhD.
Cordero-Brana believes that "There is something exciting about mathematics. It can be used to explain everything in life. I see graphs, curves, geometric shapes, functions, and optimization problems in everything. Nature is a perfect example of a perfect mathematical system."