During Olson’s tenure teaching journalism in Minnesota State Mankato’s Mass Communications department, she became increasingly concerned about the isolation she saw some international students endure and the economic struggles they faced outside of the University.
Minnesota State Mankato has always attracted a widely varied student body, including a large number of international students. Today approximately 800 students from almost 90 different countries are enrolled. Olson took a special interest in those students while she was teaching and continued to support them after teaching her last class in 1984 as well.
In the 1970s and ’80s, international students were predominantly men, many of whom had left their wives and children behind as they pursued their education. Dr. Kuhn Lee, the director of the International Student Office at that time, made a commitment to bring spouses to Mankato as well. While that decision helped keep families intact, it produced additional financial stress for some young couples as they struggled to afford both tuition and day-to-day bills.
Olson remembers visiting one student and his wife at their apartment in a “rickety old office building” and being alarmed by what she saw. “Their furniture was all cardboard boxes,” she says. “They had a refrigerator box turned horizontally and that was their table. They had no chairs and so they were on their knees, eating.”
Olson was also concerned about the fact that the women and children often remained isolated at home. She and a group of like-minded individuals at the University decided to see if they could improve the situation. “The first thing I did was start an international wives’ club,” she says. “At times it had as many as 40 or 45 wives in it. We took turns entertaining them for dinner. At one time I had tables set up in my living room, dining room and both bedrooms.”
While social outreach was important, she believed that what the students really needed was more financial assistance. In 1988, she petitioned the University Foundation board for a seed fund of $10,000 to start an international student scholarship fund.
“There was silence,” she recalls. “Six months later I brought it up again and one of the people finally said, ‘Gladys, maybe you’ll have to start this and then we’ll give as we are able.’ I didn’t have $10,000, but I did write a check for $1,000. Then at the end of the meeting, two of the board members stopped me. The first man was Joe Abdo and the second was Marion Carr. They each [personally] gave me $250, so we had $1,500 to start.”
From that somewhat inauspicious beginning, the International Student Endowment has grown into a robust financial resource. Through a series of generous financial gifts from a tightly knit, dedicated community of benefactors, the fund now includes more than $700,000 and provides nine scholarships of between $2,300 and $2,500 each year. The goal is to increase the fund to $1 million in three years, so that more scholarships can be available.
In September, the International Student and Scholar Services office is celebrating the official renaming of the fund in Olson’s honor. Olson remains uncomfortable with the plaudits she’s receiving and chooses to redirect attention to the myriad accomplishments of the scholarship recipients themselves. At 97, she remains actively involved with the University and the scholarship program and takes pride in each of the students she’s met through it.
“I guess what I’m most proud of about the endowment is that it actually happened, since it had such a feeble, pathetic beginning,” she says. “And then I guess I’m proud that I could interest other people in joining me with it.”