A legacy in education

Olson Scholars

Joel Olson, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University who passed away in March, taught with a passion and energy that encouraged his students to think critically and to think for themselves.

His ability to inspire reached beyond his students. Following his death, several faculty members and others in the university community sought to honor Olson’s memory and continue his legacy. As a result, the university created the Olson Scholars Program, which is aimed at providing educational opportunities to students who are the first in their families to attend a university.

According to Cynthia Kosso, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs and a professor of history, the focus of the Olson Scholars Program is very well aligned with both Olson’s sense of social justice and his passion for helping his students succeed.

“Joel was very interested in educating first-generation students, students from diverse backgrounds, and students that come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Kosso says. “A lot of us were motivated to try to find ways to keep his efforts and memory alive.”

Focusing on the next generation

The Olson Scholars Program is designed as a yearlong learning community geared towards underprivileged, first-generation students that might need extra help adjusting to life on campus. In the program, which is housed in the McConnell Residence Hall, students take introductory courses, attend events and tours on campus, and help one another transition to the rigors of university life.

Cindy Payne, director of the Olson Scholars Program, says the goal is to encourage students to chase their dreams, regardless of where it takes them – an ideal Olson always tried to instill through his teachings.

“One of the things that these students will have an opportunity to discover about themselves is the need to have a passion for something,” Payne says. “They don’t need to have the passion that Joel Olson had, but they can look to him as a role model for how strongly he stood for his own interests. They now have an opportunity to take a stance in life and claim something for themselves.”

Megan Townley, a freshman biomedical major and Olson Scholar, says that the program gave her confidence to get involved on campus; Townley ran for Vice President of Finance in McConnell Hall and applied to be a Resident Assistant her sophomore year.

“The Olson Scholars program made me want to become a leader and get more involved,” Townley says. “I want to be in more leadership positions because I enjoyed how the program was run and what we did in it. It really made me come out of my shell.”

Building a “family”

The program is already helping students thrive in other ways. Anet Abbott, a freshman Olson Scholar majoring in physical therapy, says having the opportunity to bond with and learn from like-minded individuals gave her a chance to build a strong foundation for her undergraduate career. She is grateful for the program, and appreciates how it helped her grow as a student and individual.

“Before the start of the semester, we would sit in the lobby in McConnell and talk about our strengths, what we did during the day, or even about Joel Olson,” Abbott says. “We get to know each other better, and I definitely think that might be one of my favorite aspects of the program. It’s nice to be able to know that we have our own little community. We became a family that we can trust.”