WKU professor reflects on her humble beginnings

Jane Olmsted is a gender and women’s studies professor, the coordinator and advisor of Social Responsibility and Sustainability Communities and the department head of diversity and community studies. Olmsted is now a published author as well.

Drake Kizer

Jane Olmsted, 65, has called WKU home since 1996.

Though she was born in Minneapolis, she spent most of her childhood in Oberlin, Ohio. She developed her passion for writing, and she began crafting magazines and other lengthy works toward the end of elementary school.

“I wrote a 16-page, handwritten, single-spaced story about a horse in fifth grade,” Olmsted said. “It was a total rip-off of a book I was in love with at the time, but my teacher was so impressed that she had me read it aloud to the class. I could hear my fellow students letting out these big sighs, and I realized that my teacher and parents were a lot more excited about my writing than everybody else.”

After graduating from Firelands High School in 1971, Olmsted attended a community college and went to Bowling Green State University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing there and accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Louisville in 1976. Olmsted’s 10-year stay in Louisville helped determine her future.

“While I was finishing my master’s degree, I worked for a couple years at Capital Holding Corporation in Louisville,” Olmsted said. “It was the worst experience of my life. I learned a lot about what I am not able to do, which is corporate America. So, I left that and got a job teaching.”

The University of Minnesota came calling and Olmsted returned to her birthplace in 1991 to pursue a doctorate in English and feminist studies. In 1996, as one chapter of her life was ending, another was beginning.

“I was looking for a job, and I saw an announcement in the Chronicle of Education for a joint appointment in English and women’s studies at WKU,” Olmsted said. “No one else saw it, but it had my name on it. I had come to love Kentucky, so I applied, and I got it. I taught both English and women’s studies for a while, but eventually I stopped teaching English.”

During Olmsted’s term, Women’s Studies became Gender and Women’s Studies. The program grouped together with other programs that formerly had no department home, such as African-American Studies, to create the Diversity and Community Studies department.

“It’s a fantastic field that has become smarter through inclusion of groups and identities that have been traditionally ignored,” Olmsted said. “The changes have been about greater inclusion of other perspectives, and to me that’s a beautiful reason for growth. It’s all about opening up a better understanding of what’s really going on and not falling back on easy interpretations.”

Though Olmsted’s main title is department head of Diversity and Community Studies, she also coordinates the Social Responsibility and Sustainable Communities master’s program, which she created in 2012.

“I have a dream job because I get to teach amazing courses to amazing students,” Olmsted said. “All of us who are trained in a discipline are indoctrinated with a certain way to view the world, but to really get into an interdisciplinary field, you have to set all of that aside. Since we’re not so concerned about meeting certain standards of a discipline, we get to focus on themes and interconnections.”

As part of her interest in interdisciplinary learning, Olmsted took a group of WKU students to Peru during each winter term from 2012 until 2014.

“The Amazon had always been sort of a mythical place in my imagination, and going there was such an amazing experience,” Olmsted said. “There is a methodology called place as text, and it’s kind of the opposite of a talking head telling you everything you need to know about a place. So, I took small groups of students there in order to explore rural and urban community environment social issues.”

Christian Ryan, WKU’s sustainability coordinator, has known Olmsted for almost a decade, and she said they are so deeply connected it is hard for her to remember everything they have done together. In addition to their professional relationship, the two have also forged a friendship, which Ryan said started after two trips to Peru with Olmsted as a doctoral student.

“I went on those trips as a student in her class, but it didn’t feel like a class. It was just an adventure,” Ryan said. “She’s definitely one of the best teachers I’ve ever had…Knowing Jane improves my quality of life, and I’m grateful for her being a really positive influence on me.”

Olmsted said she discovered her love of poetry while she was an undergraduate, and she has written poetry on and off throughout her life. At some points, all she wanted to do was write, and one of those instances spawned her 2015 book, “Seeking the Other Side.”

“My youngest son was murdered in 2009, and the best way for me to get through that was to go into an internal space to be with him and to explore profound questions about loss and meaning,” Olmsted said. “I thought in poetry during that time, and so the bulk of those poems are about him. The other poems are ones I had written before, but interestingly enough, they explored similar kinds of themes.”

Olmsted has three sons and three grandchildren. After her youngest son’s death, Olmsted received custody of his daughter, Leah. Olmsted said she focuses on raising her granddaughter and encouraging her to always give new things a try, the same advice she gives her students.

“I believe that if we follow our curiosity and our hearts then insights and opportunities will come to us,” Olmsted said. “I tell my students, ‘Have your antenna out for possibilities of what’s out there.’ That’s not just for students. That’s for all of us.”

Olmsted said although she is unsure what the future holds, she will be at Harlaxton College in England during the Fall 2018 semester teaching English and Gender and Women’s Studies. She is excited about the opportunity, and it has given her a chance to reflect on what she has accomplished so far.

“There was a time in my life when I didn’t dream I would have a Ph.D. because I had self-esteem issues,” Olmsted said. “I told my mentor…that I could not write a dissertation, and she said I could if I thought of it like a series of five term papers all linked with some theme. She helped me realize things that seem overwhelming can be broken down into steps. Life is really a series of thinking you can’t do something until you get to the end and realize it wasn’t so bad after all. Then, you do it all over again.”

Features reporter Drake Kizer can be reached at 270-745-2653 and [email protected]. Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.