By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — It began the way a lot of good things begin.
Someone wrote a check.
And because she did, the Minnesota State University community has been blessed with thousands of international students from every corner of the globe.
That someone, by the way, was Gladys Olson. And that check was for $1,000. Today, that initial investment — made after someone told her that if she wanted this international student thing to happen here, she should start by writing a check — has swelled. Today it’s an endowment worth roughly $650,000, and several hundred students have been able to leave their homes in Nepal or Armenia or Pakistan or Japan all because one woman knew it was the right thing to do, and had the courage to make it happen.
Gladys Olson, 97, was the grand marshal of the 2013 International Festival. Her official duties were to show up, say a few words at the opening ceremony and parade of flags, but really, her true work was done years ago.
Olson was a journalism professor at MSU for many years. During that time she taught many students who went on to great careers both locally and around the country. But teaching journalism students is only part of her legacy.
Early in her career — which covered work in newspapers as well as teaching in both high school and college — Olson said she noticed something she didn’t like.
“I felt that our students weren’t being very accepting of the international students,” she said.
To rectify this, Olson said, she started urging them to get together more, to get to know each other. It was the beginning a journey that, before long, would have meaningful impact on the lives of many international students.
She helped establish the festival as well as that scholarship fund. Getting the fund going, though, wasn’t easy. As a member of the board that oversaw the university’s engagement with international students, Olson said a visit to the apartment of an international student inspired her to pitch the idea of setting up a scholarship fund to help them.
After that she pleaded with the board to set up a scholarship fund, but the board wasn’t willing to do that yet. She tried two more times to get it done and both times was denied.
That’s when someone suggested writing a check. And that’s when it started. That $1,000 was just the beginning. As soon as she could afford it, Olson gave $9,000 more. Support rolled in, and today it’s one of the university’s great success stories. Since then, scholarships have gone to more than 200 students totaling about a quarter million dollars.
Choosing Olson as grand marshal, then, seemed like a logical choice. Over the years Olson has hosted 27 international students, many of whom remain in contact with her (one of whom comes to Mankato each year to visit her.) She’s also a world traveler, having crossed both oceans more than a dozen times for teaching and furthering the cause of MSU’s international student community.
When the call came — the one from the MSU letting her know they’d chosen her as grand marshal — Olson said she wasn’t expecting it.
“Of course it’s an honor,” she said. “I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed ... Maybe I didn’t accept it as graciously as I should have.” She said the committee called her several times before she finally accepted.
Today, the festival is alive and well. Sunday’s event featured food from dozens of different vendors as well as music, dance, fashion and art. Several thousand people likely attended.
After spending several years at Mankato East High School, it has been back to the MSU campus the past few years and will likely stay there.