• David Olson (Photo by Lance Holt)
    David Olson (Photo by Lance Holt)
    © 2014 Lance Holt

Numerous students, many of whom met Olson when they took his public speaking course, say he is a thoughtful, passionate and effective teacher. And while students at other universities may write off a class like public speaking as a “booster” class—one that will get them an easy “A”—Olson’s students often consider public speaking at Southwestern to be one of their classes most applicable to the real world. In fact, one of his students says that Olson’s emphasis on the ability to tell a concise, compelling and charismatic story changed everything for her. She went from having much anxiety about public speaking to a successful career giving onsite training sessions across the country.

With Olson’s infectious smile and warm spirit, students and colleagues alike refer to him as intelligent—he holds several master’s degrees—as well as kind, generous, patient, funny and insightful. One former student says Olson is her compass; that he listens patiently and always leads her in the right direction. She says, “You may not even know it at the time, but he always let’s you decide.”

Although Olson can be surprisingly quiet, he also happens to be one of the most powerful speakers that many have ever met. He commands a room with his approach and often, people will actually lean forward in their chairs when he gives a talk.

Many people consider Olson to be a mentor and a friend. One former student says he has never met a person who knows Olson who doesn’t feel they are a better thinker, a better speaker and a better all around communicator because of him. This alumnus says Olson is the reason he is able to do what he does today; that Olson not only polished his approach to public speaking, but also forced him to consider all sides to an argument before (in his words) opening his big mouth.

Another former student echoes these sentiments, saying that she would not be doing what she is doing today if Olson had not taken the time to listen to her, a self-described “lost and curious student.” She explains that she had realistic dreams and dreams that only dreamers should have, and that Olson took her “dreamy dreams” and talked about how real they could be. Now a TV reporter in Kansas City, this alumna says Olson urged her to chase those dreams and helped her every step of the way until she was flying.

Colleagues describe Olson as the quiet but essential foundation of the Communication Studies Department, serving as the two bookends to students’ education. Many first-year students encounter him in his acclaimed public speaking class and then again as seniors working closely with Olson on their academic internships.

Olson’s unfailing appreciation and respect for his students in all their triumphs and challenges shows that his primary mode in life is to foster well-being and to change the world, one life at a time. One of Olson’s colleagues says he does not know anyone more committed to meeting students where they are and to lifting them up, not just for their own good, but so they can recognize that with privilege comes the responsibility to serve others. This has lasting effects on Olson’s students, who then carry that lesson on responsibly into their lifelong engagement with the world.  

Each person who sits down in Olson’s office is a life changed. In high demand as an academic adviser, his list of consults usually spans several sheets of paper and then extends onto Post-It Notes. Sincere in action and word, never mocking an idea or thought, he is personally invested in each student, who undoubtedly feels that Olson truly wants him or her to succeed.  

But, it’s not just students who are inspired by Olson. His colleagues—many of whom are his friends as well—call him an example and a mentor. They say Olson helps people find ways to live life in a way that honors who they are while finding a place where they can make a difference for others.

Olson makes people feel known. A former student, known to Olson as “Rocket Girl,” says, “Awesome people deserve awesome things” … like this award.

For being one of the quiet ones who doesn’t ask for recognition, for his dedication to Southwestern and its students, and for being an inspiration to all who are fortunate to work closely with him, The Association of Southwestern University Alumni proudly presented David Olson with the 2014 Mr. Homecoming Award.

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