In August, Tom Olson, Ph.D. became the dean of Mercy College’s School of Health and Natural Sciences. Dr. Olson comes to Mercy College with a distinguished career in higher education. Most recently, he served as Professor and Executive Associate Dean at New York University College of Nursing, and as Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Ph.D. Program in the College of Health Sciences and School of Nursing at the University of Texas at El Paso. In a Q&A session, Dr. Olson provided some insights his background, passion, and vision for the health care and Mercy College.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO MERCY?
Mercy College is absolutely the right connection for me at this stage in my career because of the opportunity to positively influence so many people through the transformative power of education. Dr. Michael Sperling, the Mercy College Provost says it correctly: every institution will say they are dedicated to transformative education. But the truth is that Mercy really does that.
WHY IS A SCHOOL, LIKE MERCY, WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT PROGRAMS EXCITING TO YOU?
Mercy College has tremendous opportunities in terms of building scholarship, pushing forward the care of individuals and communities, and joining many people together to address complicated issues in the health and natural sciences. We have programs in communication disorders, physician assistant studies, physical therapy, veterinary technology, nursing, exercise science, medical technology, health sciences and occupational therapy. The occupational therapy and physical therapy students are sitting together outside my office, both on their way to the cadaver lab, so that they can understand the structure of the body and work together well. It’s not unusual that some of our faculty actually have multiple disciplines in their background.
AS A DEAN, HOW CONNECTED DO YOU GET TO THE FACULTY AND STUDENTS?
I get tremendously connected in many ways because my success as a Dean is actually their success. It’s making connections between people; it’s making things happen because mostly what I’m trying to do is to hear the ideas that are so wonderful, to make those connections, to make those training grants, those research grants, those educational initiatives happen to improve teaching in the classroom. That can only happen if I sit down and know people individually, know their interests, and what motivates them.
WHAT’S YOUR EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND?
I’m a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in History and Political Science, with a specialty in education. From there I went Rochester (MN) Community College and received an associate degree in nursing and worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. I also have an advanced practice master’s degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing, as well as a PhD in nursing.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST TEACHING JOB IN THE HEALTH SCIENCES?
When there was a nursing strike at the facility where I worked, I got a call from a friend who asked if I would like to teach at a Community College. She said they really had a need for a mental health professional.
It was a period of tremendous integration in nursing, so although I was a mental health professional, I was teaching people on orthopedic units and cardiac step down units. I got a crash course in many aspects of nursing, and came away even more excited.
That got me interested in moving on educationally, so I went back to the University of Minnesota, this time in Minneapolis, and worked on my master’s degree in psychiatric mental health nursing, which until the 1990s was really the entrance into advanced clinical practice in nursing.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT PSYCHIARTRIC NURSING THAT DREW YOU?
Part of it is the same thing that brought me to the study of history; hearing people’s stories, about being part of their narrative, and in a real sense being able to help shape that narrative in a very positive way for that person.
I particularly connected to people who have problems with anxiety and fear, especially those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I saw people near to me who had issues with anxiety and I decided this was where I wanted to be, clinically.
WHAT DO YOU THINK PARENTS SHOULD LOOK FOR AS THEY HELP A CHILD WHO IS INTERESTED IN THE SCIENCES WEIGH DIFFERENT COLLEGES?
In addition to visiting the school, they need to talk to some of the students and talk to the faculty, and find out, are they really walking the walk in terms of engaging students, of making students #1, making education and learning #1.
There are some very practical things too: Mercy College has a fantastic ratio of faculty to students, so students get to have very close, individualized attention. And the mentoring program here is second to none. It’s incredible. The PACT mentoring program here is exceptional.
YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT HOW MENTORING IS SO IMPORTANT HERE AT MERCY COLLEGE. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THOSE THAT HAVE MENTORED YOU?
I have learned about drive, perseverance, and being willing to risk; being willing to fail sometimes and to learn from that failure. I have learned about listening to people, hearing their ideas, and then building on those ideas.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST DAY ON CAMPUS HERE AT MERCY
I found my way off the Metro North train and I was walking up the path and met my very first student on campus. I introduced myself and I asked him what program he was with and he said, “I’m in veterinary technology.”
He then proceeded to enthusiastically list the program statistics: top eight in the nation, etc. and not only was he enthused about that and the courses that he was in, but he also said, “Look, I can be a veterinary technologist when I finish this and that’s probably what I’ll do. But if I decide that I want to be a veterinarian I can also do that.”
After our conversation, I walked away and I said to myself, “I’m in the right place.”