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  • Synopsis: Introduction
    Keywords: Introduction
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: My name is Dayton LeClercq. I am here with my narrator, Dr. Grant Olson. Today is Wednesday, October 9th, 2019. We are here today in the DeKalb Public Library located in DeKalb, Illinois, to conduct an oral history interview with Dr. Grant Olson for Northern Illinois University's 125th Anniversary Oral History Project. Thank you, Dr. Olson, for participating in this project. I'd like to start with a question about your background. Would you mind saying a bit about your background such as where you grew up and your life before you came to NIU?
  • Synopsis: Early Life
    Keywords: Minneapolis, Minnesota; Twin Cities; Suburban Life; Lakes; Outdoor Recreational Activities.
    Transcript: OLSON: Sure. I was born in Minneapolis and then lived around the Minneapolis area. Eventually, our family relocated West of the Twin Cities and that's essentially where I grew up, kind of on the edge of a lake area. Minnesota isn't very hard to be too far from a lake. We didn't live on a lake, but we could always bike to lakes and so my life in the summer was mainly around the lakes and even in the winter around the lakes. Growing up, we had plenty to do. I was always swimming, I eventually taught swimming, I taught lifesaving. That's part of the way I paid my way through college, but we had cross country skiing, snowmobiling, a number of different kinds of things. It was a great place to grow up where my house was kind of a burgeoning suburb out the front door, and then out the back door was probably about four or five horse pastures, so I could just run out the back door and I preferred the back door.
  • Synopsis: Start at NIU and Family Life
    Keywords: Center for Southeast Asia Studies; Theravada Buddhism; Northern Illinois University; DeKalb Genetics Corporation Logo; Detroit Lakes, Minnesota; Twin Cities, Minnesota; DeKalb, Illinois; Peace Corps; Cultural Anthropology; Pali (language; Thai (language); Thailand; Apple Corporation; Macintosh Computers; Henry Luce Foundation; Cornell University; Computer Programming.
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: That sounds pretty nice. Can I ask you what brought you to NIU?

    OLSON: Yes, I guess several things I'm aware of and probably some things that I'm not aware of. I first probably heard of DeKalb, when I was driving, sitting in a car driving—my father driving us up to visit my Norwegian grandfather in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. I'd see all the signs on the side of the road for corn [Logo for the DeKalb Genetics Corporation]. That's the first time I saw DeKalb with the ear of corn with a wing on it—flying ear of corn and as a kid I kind of wondered, "Well, whose imagination was that or what kind of magical place is this where ears of corn fly around?" I guess it stayed in my mind from that. But what brought me much closer was—I've been a teacher in Minnesota for a while then I was kind of a frustrated high school teacher in rural Minnesota and decided to follow my interest to go to Asia so I went in the Peace Corps and liked it so much, you have to make a two-year commitment. I liked it so much I stayed a third year. And then I looked for opportunities for graduate studies and so I went off and left Peace Corps, after having served three years, and then went to graduate school and got a degree in Asian Religions. Then I moved on and went farther along, got another MA and a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, Southeast Asian Studies, Thai language, and Pali Language—kind of combination of different interests.Primarily my degree is in Cultural Anthropology. I really think of myself as a cultural anthropologist. As I got towards the end of my dissertation work, I was running out of money and I had a family, a small family, I had a young daughter and my wife from Thailand. I was starting to look for jobs. Amazingly enough, DeKalb NIU had announced the job in anthropology and Theravada Buddhism, which was really the focus. I wrote an autobiography and biography of a living Thai Buddhist monk and so that was my dissertation. They weren't interested however, in hiring me because I was six months away from finishing and getting my degree. Apparently, they had had some problem in the department and someone—they may have hired someone, and that person never finished and then caused a discord in the department or something like that. I looked a little further and within NIU, I mean, I was very interested in NIU because of the center for Southeast Asian Studies.I was naive as many young scholars might be and so I thought oh, yes, a geographical focus, a discipline focus and so on, they ought to be equal, let's go someplace and where I can kind of delve into Southeast Asian Studies and delve into anthropology and so on and practice my discipline. When that didn't really work out, another job opened up in the center, and at that time, amazingly enough, Henry Luce Foundation had actually opened up jobs for personnel. Normally they're funding projects and other kinds of things like that or language and other programs but in this case, they had an interesting seed for some money for personnel. The center asked for an editor who had a background in English, I taught English, that's high school English and so on.I came and I started to edit their publications and hoped that I might eventually practice more anthropology and do other kinds of things in that area. I also had experience with computers, so when I was at Cornell finishing my Ph.D., I set up some databases for qualitative research. I developed the first or one of the very first Thai fonts for the Macintosh computer. Apple had an agreement with many educational institutions and they gave them development software. I went to talk to our folks at Cornell and they said, "Oh, yes." I said, "I'd like to take my homework in Thai." Okay, so they gave me a key to get into the operating system and then draw bitmap fonts and then I did that. I had some computer experience as well, so when I got here to NIU, we set up a desktop publishing, a Macintosh desktop publishing system and then proceeded to streamline and upgrade almost every aspect of the publications program at the center.
  • Synopsis: Editor for Crossroad and Commuting Scholar
    Keywords: Peace Corps; Cornell University; Computer Programming; East-West Center, Hawaii; Fulbright Scholar; Social Science Research Council; Crossroads (journal); Editorial Publications; Commuting Lecturer; England; DeKalb, Illinois
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Now, your role at the center for that, was it more or less the publication or was it the actual development of the system?

    OLSON: Both.

    LECLERCQ: Both?

    OLSON: The physical computer system, you mean or?

    LECLERCQ: Yes. Would you mind expounding upon that a little?

    OLSON: They had a list of people who were signed up to receive a journal, for example, there was a journal called Crossroads, and then occasional papers, and then special reports—those were the two monograph series they had, and they had a newsletter. We were to create two journals a year and an occasional paper and a special report a year and then send out the newsletter. We upgraded the database—these were all on paper or cards for the most part and so on. I don't remember how exactly how or if they had sent them to some central place at NIU to get their labels printed out or whatever they had done.We brought all those things in-house and then we created our own database and input all the addresses, handled all the subscriptions, handled all the money for the subscriptions, set—so-called “set” the type for all of the—and style for all of the various publications. Then we could create camera-ready copy, then we just sent that to the publisher if they sent us a proof. We proofread the whole thing—I had a quarter-time graduate student from the English department who had helped me proofread—and then we would send it out to be published and the books would arrive in a box and we would lay them all out on the table, put them in envelopes and physically mail them out, get mailing—NIU mailing to come with a small truck and pick the stuff up.

    LECLERCQ: Wow, that's a lot. Especially, back in the days of paper when was this about the '80s, '90s?

    OLSON: Well, I arrived at NIU in—I think I started working October of 1988.

    LECLERCQ: This was after your time in the Peace Corps, in Thailand for three years?

    OLSON: Right. Well, it would have been after Peace Corps, then it was three years in Hawaii and then because I did my MA and then stayed on the East-West Center [a research program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa] as a research associate. Then I was at Cornell probably for five years or so.

    LECLERCQ: That's quite a trek to make.

    OLSON: With a year of fieldwork as well, over a year of fieldwork—lucky enough to take my family with me for the fieldwork and lucky to be funded by Fulbright and the Social Science Research Council and some of these other very kind people.

    LECLERCQ: That's amazing. That's quite a trek across the globe there. Then would you mind describing like the different roles you have taken on here at NIU since you've gotten here? I mean, you mentioned the editorial part, but I heard you were once a [crosstalk]—

    OLSON: Well, one snag. With the Henry Luce funding was that if they were going to see these personnel positions then after a particular time, and I can't remember, it was five years or whatever it was, then the university would have to kick in and kick it up a notch in terms of funding in order to just make this thing sustainable. Unfortunately, the Director of the Center at the time forgot to have the Dean sign off on the agreement with Henry Luce, and so they came to me and said, “How would you like to work for thirty percent less than the small amount of money that we're paying you already?” I said, “No, thank you.” I rather quickly looked around for some other opportunities, but I took an opportunity to commute to England, which was trying in many different ways. That could be, I guess it's probably a separate story. I took an endowed position. It was a really sweet position, fit my personality and my training very well. It was called the “Bearing Foundation Lectureship in Thai Language and Thai Culture”. I spent a very incredible year in England with very supportive people but then elected ultimately not to stay there and then came back to this area again.

    LECLERCQ: Did you take your family with you for your trips to England? Did they stay here?

    OLSON: No, my wife's job—She had taught some Thai here at NIU and then she started working in the library and she also has an MA in Library and Information Sciences. That was before, while they still have that program at NIU, they've since dropped that program, unfortunately, but she got her degree before they closed that department and her job kept getting better and better. She loved what she was doing, loved her work, so something has to give. I came back to this area. My daughter liked the school and so on. I mean like many people sort of in summary. We thought we'd be in DeKalb a relatively short period of time, then we'd probably move on and do something else and we're still here.
  • Synopsis: Staying on at NIU and the Changes over Time
    Keywords: DeKalb, Illinois; Northern Illinois University; Restaurants; Eateries; Jensen Apartments; Campus Life; Campus Living; Change over Time; Center for Southeast Asia Studies; Kishwaukee River; Midwest (region); Midwestern Living; Lincoln Highway
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: I've actually heard that from a couple other people. When was this? I've been trying to get a little more context on that. When about was this because a lot of people said it was their first stop and they were looking to move on, but obviously they stayed. Was there a reason for this for you?

    OLSON: Well, I mean I'm from the Midwest and so when we first drove into this town, I think it was '88 and there had been a drought, like there often is, and there occasionally is in DeKalb, everything was golden, so it was kind of like bleached earth and I'm driving my wife through town. Then we crossed the railroad tracks and head down Lincoln Highway a little further, she turns to me and goes, "This is it?" I said, "Yes, this is a one or two-horse Midwest town and Midwestern town." I was fairly familiar with that and I felt fairly comfortable with that and I figured it would be a good place to raise our daughter. That was about it. Occasionally looked farther for other jobs and so on but we kind of made the commitment that, if possible, we were going to probably hang around and raise a family and be committed to something.

    LECLERCQ: Nice. What was your favorite part of your role here at NIU?

    OLSON: I would say my favorite parts—Well, first of all, the early days in and around NIU and DeKalb are quite different than they are now. I would say our world has been changed in major ways by September 11th and then the shooting at NIU. Those two things seem to have impacted NIU and DeKalb [Illinois] and certainly other parts of the world in different ways. When I first was working here it was a converted apartment building with a Center for Southeast Asian Studies called Jensen Apartments. That's where the parking structure is now. We had what was kind of a blown-out or blown-through wall and there were these two or three apartments in there and then you could walk from one to the other through these portals. It was kind of nice. It was quaint, cozy and so we had the center for Burma Studies [since renamed the Center for Southeast Asia Studies] in one far apartment. The Director and Secretary had their offices in another section which would have been another apartment and then over, off to the side, there was a set of desks and then offices is kind of the—some of them led into each other and shared. We had some language teachers there and so on and eventually the publications program kind of came to occupy the back office in one of these. It was a really good atmosphere. You could walk out of the Jensen Apartments, turn left, cross Lincoln highway, and there was a tiny house there around some mature trees and in that house was a Thai restaurant. It's like you were eating in somebody's living room or bedroom and looking out the window and the guy was in the kitchen, cooking your food for you, and the atmosphere was pretty incredible. Now it's come to a point, and this is metaphorical in a way, that there's a police station there. To me, the atmosphere of the whole thing has changed drastically. I think that's pretty poor planning. I wish that we had more of that kind of atmosphere around the university. It seems sometimes that the town is almost in parallel, on a separate track with the university, and they're divided by the almighty Kishwaukee River or something. I wish too that the town and the university would physically blend together better and that there would be things—in other words, you could just walk right off campus and then you could go sit down and relax and do something along the way that might even lead you uptown. The downtown DeKalb, the main street, has always been searching for its soul and it still is and I'm not sure it's really found it. In some ways, I think NIU is still searching for its soul as well.
  • Synopsis: Language Computer Programs at NIU
    Keywords: Ray Turville; Computer Programming; Linda Tillis; Neptune North (dormatory); NIU Tech Team; Foreign Language Multimedia Learning and Training Center; Computer Publishing;
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Were there any projects you created or were involved with? You mentioned the Thai font, was there any other projects or within that project that you really enjoyed?

    OLSON: Well, the Thai font was done while I was a graduate student, so before I came to DeKalb, but we did use it here and we used it to create some publications. I'm happy to say it had some utility. One thing I want to say is that the various projects that I've worked on at NIU have been a lesson of impermanence for me. Part of my background is studying Buddhism and so on and I would have to say that a lot of the things that I've done have been really rewarding, but they also are a lesson in impermanence because they really no longer exist anymore or certainly don't exist in the form of their original impetus or goal and so the center job, desktop publishing and so on because of changes in publishing and changes in how budgets work and different kinds of things. Eventually, that publishing program was just done away with. They're allowed one book now through NIU press to publish on a Southeast Asian subject, but essentially, it's handled through the press, not through the center. The center can give some input but it's a job of the press now. I think that some of those things could have been done through the center if they had had the right people in transition. After I chose to leave, there was a kind of a hiatus, but certainly some of these things later on with other centers and other places, publications got packaged, became electronic, were distributed in new ways, and that might've been able to have been done, but they didn't choose to do that. When I came back from England, I was involved in an on-campus computer reseller operation with Apple computers. In Neptune North [dorm], they had a showroom, a repair facility, and a storage area where we were selling Apple computers at academic prices. I've been lucky enough to have I guess, here at NIU, a couple of visionary bosses. They really deserve quite a bit of credit. One at that time with that project, her name was Linda Tillis, she was brave enough to hire me. Could see the kind of energy I had and excitement that I had for Apple products and Macintosh computers. Her goal was to—she worked for housing and dining and she was in the administration. She also oversaw the—it was called the NIU Tech Team. I like that name—because we really tried to be a team. We would sell computers. We would back them up. Support them. We had a student team working with us. Then we taught a lot of those students how to upgrade or repair and set up computers for educational purposes for different people. We had some really bright students working in that group who developed some really good software—connection software back then when we were connecting with the modem and so on. We have basically, a really good relationship with the community. Linda Tillis had the goal of trying to get funding and then maybe even eventually then putting a computer in a room for you when you arrived at the residence hall be it a PC or a Mac. Then it would be sitting there connected to the internet. Then you would purchase that as a part of your package when you're getting into the residence hall. Quite a vision that she had. Ultimately, it seems the Director of Housing—and maybe some other people were getting pressured—and they didn't seem to want that program to go forward. They did away with the program.

    LECLERCQ: Really? How long was the program running for then?

    OLSON: I don't know. Five or six years maybe? It was there before I got there. Then they decided to do away with it. Somewhere around I think 1997. Then the second—the project after that so I was looking for a job after that collapsed. Another visionary person was Ray Turville in foreign languages and literatures, which is what it was called at that time. He had this goal, I guess, had had this goal for quite a while, to develop a learning center that would be—he had an old cassette lab and, of course, he refused to call this new project a lab. It was going to be a Learning Center. If I called it a lab, he deducted five bucks from my pay or something every time I said it. It was named the Foreign Language Multimedia Learning and Training Center. Quite a grand name. He had found out all sorts of money. He was a real mover and shaker. He wanted sections in this learning center of computers connected for various purposes. Everything connected to the internet. Then testing facilities, special software and so on. Many times, we were installing computers with say three different cards in them back in the day, for example. You had to have a network card. You have a sound card. Then we had to have a MPEG card to support MPEG video. All these things that are now built into one chip, probably or two little chips, and put on the board of almost every multimedia device we have. Back then, we had to build them and construct them and test them and then, of course, there were different pieces of software for all these things. It was an amazing project. I had to learn PCs. I had to learn servers. I had to learn—We were one of the first places at NIU facilities to support video streaming across the network. We were to run a video server stream, files that would be conducive to studying the thirteen or fourteen languages that we supported. That was a huge project. Again, I thank him very much for having faith in me that I would be a key person who could help him make it happen. While that brought me a little further away from my discipline and my practice of anthropology and other things, it brought me much closer to a lot of other things. That certainly was a real high to be able to make these kinds of things work and be of service to people in this way.
  • Synopsis: Projects at NIU
    Keywords: Computer Programming; MPEG Cards; Video Streaming; Foreign Language Multimedia Learning and Training Center
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: You've told me a little bit about the projects that you've been involved with, but would you mind telling me maybe was there—what you think was the most difficult decision you've had to make within those projects?

    OLSON: Well, I think you have to make sacrifices for different kinds of things that you do. For me, some of the most difficult decisions are well, “Do you move, or do you stay?” That's one thing. Do you become an itinerant scholar and pick up and move around to—some of these jobs were—always have the clause of if this works out, “If there's funding. If this or if that—" and do you pick up your whole family and then move on an “if”? I think that for me, the importance of a lot of this has been talking to my family and finding out which road we're going to go or what we're going to do. Those have been some of the most difficult decisions. Then, of course, are you going to continue to work for the kind of money that's in academia? That in itself is a sacrifice. If we're going to talk about sustainability, ultimately too, I talked about the publications being disbanded, the tech team being disbanded. Well, ultimately, with our Learning Center when the budget started to hit the fan, we as middle-class academics were without a raise or any kind of merit or cost of living adjustment for seven years. Now, who else out in the so-called real world will work for that? That's a sacrifice and that's a difficult decision. Am I going to continue down that path? Ultimately, technology takes money. We ended up working with computers that were ten years old. You just can't do that. We were on bleeding edge territory working with MPEG cards and all these kinds of things and streaming video and so on. Then we moved to a point where we're not funded. We're not getting hardly any pay increases. Then we're trying to make computers work that are nine or ten years old.

    LECLERCQ: Wow. For that technology, was that about the time smartphones started coming out too?

    OLSON: Was part maybe.

    LECLERCQ: You mentioned that was—when was this about?

    OLSON: Well, this was when I retired. I think that this brought me to retirement. The lack of funding, the lack of any increase in salary. Then I pleaded with people, please, if we're going to move this forward at all, we need X, Y, and Z. They said, "Well, gee, there's really no budget for it." Even though we have student fees and so on. That's a long story. We had student fees, but they wouldn't let us use them. They were holding some of those funds back from us perhaps for other purposes. Then I said, "Okay, I'm going to take this opportunity and bow out.”

    LECLERCQ: It still seems like a pretty lengthy career with NIU though.

    OLSON: Well, yes, I was here for, I suppose twenty-nine years, off and on.
  • Synopsis: SEAS Center
    Keywords: Peace Corps; Center for Southeast Asian Studies; Thai (language); Cornell University; Student Research; Research Center
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Yes, back to the Southeast Asian Study Center, you said you've seen it change and develop, how would you compare it to other universities with such centers? What do you think makes it unique?

    OLSON: Well, back in the day, this is a pretty involved story and I really don't want to speak if any authority on this at all because I wasn't really directly involved with some aspects of it. In fact, at one point the director preferred that he handle those things himself. One of the great things about the center is it started out to help support Peace Corps. There was some aspect of Peace Corps training being done in NIU. I like that legacy. One of the ways I'd first heard of NIU was a publication they had put out and I read in the course of my graduate studies. The original focus was to be more on research and language. We as graduate students, we were going through Cornell and so on. It was constantly hammered into us that, now, in this modern world, we need to be grounded in a discipline, we need to learn a language to the point where we could go out and then do original research with the language. We did that. Almost all of my fellow students ended up doing that, coming back with an original qualitative research and translating interviews, various things and then incorporating that into our research and dissertations. Right now, though, let me jump ahead a little bit, and then I'll go back. Right now, at NIU, one of my deepest interests at NIU has been Thai studies and supporting Thai studies in various ways. Right now, if you study the Thai language, there is no one with whom you can study a discipline related to Thailand. One of the highs for me at the center was that I was actually able to teach a class in Thai. Granted it was an independent study with a pretty bright student in Thai on Thai monastic history and Thai Buddhist practices, and we only spoke Thai. We had a five-minute breakdown period at the end of the day if you don't get this right but so on. Our goal was to primarily convey, exchange, and do all these things in the Thai language. Now, that's what I—I love that. All right, that's what I think education is about. Acquiring a background, acquiring discipline, acquiring information, acquiring a language, and then putting it into practice, and then going out. I'm happy to say that person still living in Thailand and doing meaningful things. That's a real high. The center, originally, was involved more with research, and supporting research, and attempting to get research grants. When the competition got too stiff with other centers and they couldn't get the kind of funding to maintain the level of funding for being a research center, they were encouraged to apply, I think more like an undergraduate level for the center. Then the nature of a lot of the programs changed after that. It became more involved in exchange programs with youth from Southeast Asia, and a number of different things like that. We have visiting groups of youth from Southeast Asia who do various things with different kinds of projects and then go back to their countries. One of the benefits of that, on the positive side, is that some of these people return to NIU, and then go to school here. Of course, it's soft diplomacy, it's good public relations and these kinds of things. So much energy has been put into a lot of these projects like that, very different from the original research and language. That has been a real shift.

    LECLERCQ: For that shifting backwards, how did it start, exactly? Where did they begin, and where has it come to now, in terms of space?

    OLSON: I don't know the details of all that honestly. I don't remember exactly all the details, but the shift happened when they found that if competition with some other centers, they couldn't maintain this research status and get the funding at that level. Then they were encouraged to apply at a different level and then have been quite successful with these other kinds of projects.

    LECLERCQ: Going forward, what is your hope for the future of their Southeast Asian Study Center?

    OLSON: Well, I would like to see just a little bit more focus back to the Associates, the so-called Associates of the center. All the way along I wasn't an Associate of the center, I'm happy to say and so much energy and so much time is put on—When a lot of these youths come, they have to find a homestay for them, they have to do a bunch of different things. It's a pretty labor intensive project, my understanding. I would like to see a shift back a little bit towards supporting some of the research interests of the various Associates. Finding ways to perhaps be a little more creative and seed some of their aspirations. Instead of just a line in a newsletter or something like that, that so and so gave a paper at such and such a place, that there might even be a few more features. They've done some podcasts, those are creative things, that's good. More of that could be done, should be done.
  • Synopsis: Peace and World Religious Studies Program Potential
    Keywords: null
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Now for a hard one. If you could change one thing here at NIU, what would it be, and how would you go about it?

    OLSON: Yes, I suspect what I would change about NIU is similar to what I might change if I were at another educational institution or different education. I think that, perhaps, NIU's challenges and problems may not be that different from other institutions. That's pretty involved question. There's no one thing. I think there are things that need to be done, first of all, as a naive person. First of all, I think you need to be naive. If you're going to make anything happen, if you're going to be optimistic, you need a certain aspect of naivety because the other side of the hill is cynicism. Once you turn cynical, hardly anything gets done, and I try to teach this to my daughter, and I discuss with friends and so on. Arriving, I was naive about a number of different things, and I think that I was shocked. A couple of things I don't want to share. I can tell you they shocked me to my core when I found out how unethical a couple of people could be from my graduate institution, Cornell. Then, of course, what you find out when you work here locally. I never really realized the extent to which politics is rampant in education and I tried to keep my distance from that. Perhaps keeping my distance from that left me out of a loop of a number of different things. I would prefer to be on the periphery than rather in the thick of that Kind of muck. Ultimately, in politics and education, the people who suffer are the students. That to me was a shock and in many ways, and that's something I've had to deal with. I would say, I'm still dealing with it. Reflecting on different things, these things don't leave you. Most problems really to me are a result of a lack of communication, course poor planning, and then a lack of collaboration with different people. Not looking at the overall things. I guess another thing about back to the center, is that instead of focusing and continuing to focus on our strengths, the center at various times thought that, "Oh we ought to branch out. Perhaps we ought to get someone in here". The roots of the center are really Malay studies. If we had had somebody in history who could have taught about Malaysia, taught Islam or could speak Islam and so on, it would have been extremely valuable at different points, especially post-9/11. Thai, Thailand has always been a strength. I'm not sure they really supported it the way they should have, instead branching out to other geographical areas within South-East Asia and so on, at the expense of our strengths. That's one thing. Do you want me to talk more about a little bit about the institution in general as well or?

    LECLERCQ: Please, feel free.

    OLSON: There are certain things that I've tried to advocate, and I can't really say that I've been very successful. I've always thought that we ought to have a Comparative Asian Religion Class. We had people who are capable of doing it very, very well. That would teach—team taught—would teach Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. People in the philosophy department, students in the philosophy department always told me they'd be interested. I think other people, in general, would be interested in and I think it would qualify for other kinds of things that you need to do, or have when you are taking a liberal arts education. It never happened. We tried it in different ways. At one point NIU had a reassessment of programs, and we proposed a religious studies program that would be interdisciplinary, and we had a core group of people, we put our proposal forward. A lot of these proposals were really not given much weight and it's really no different at that time. That's one thing that that I've always really wanted, and we still don't have that. I think another thing in general that's needed in the world now, is teaching students more about conflict resolution. That can be accomplished through anthropology and other kinds of things by showing cross-cultural examples of various societies and cultures, and how they resolve their problems, how they get through their problems. I think that we could work together with literature, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and so on and try to put something together that would help to study more about conflict resolution, even anger management. I think you ought to have some seminars. Different professors ought to be encouraged to hold some seminars in anger management, from different perspectives. Once you start to feel angry, once you start to feel alone, once you start to feel revengeful and so on, if that's a word, what are you going to do? What do you do about it? What do various people do about it? How are you going to deal with it? I think that that needs to be discussed in the wake of the election, of the 2016 election, some people were feeling anxious and I know that there were a few seminars. The police was involved and a couple of other studies and support centers were there, and we had open discussions about different things when people were feeling alienated about a variety of things. They said they would follow up, and I never really saw many follow-ups to that. That kind of thing needs to be encouraged and should be developed on some kind of ongoing basis, if not incorporated into classes. Another one, of course, environmental education. I think environmental education ought to be incorporated into every discipline. When I was in an undergrad, this is at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, they decided that they were going to get involved in peace education. They hired a person who was coordinating peace education. Every professor was encouraged somehow somewhere, to encourage a discussion of peace, be it after having studied a piece of literature, or again in psychology or whatever it might be, what value does peace have and what can the study of peace or reflecting on peace bring to our discipline? That was a pretty valuable program. An occasion I remember I was in literature and my professor studying a book, I don't remember which one at the time but all of a sudden, "Okay, okay, okay, stop, stop. Now, having gotten to this point in our discussion, what would a discussion of peace have to do with our argument right now?" You had the space, you had this way of place where you could insert this thing, and then make it a part of the discussion. That was really valuable. Environmental studies, understanding various processes, matrices of interconnectedness, things like that. Even the word Dharma as fundamental as it is to Buddhism and many things in Asia. It's a fabric of interconnectedness. It's the nature of things. Understanding the nature of things that if you do this here, what it might do over here, and having done this here, what is the impact of that over here. In our narcissistic world, I think we're getting away from some of the value of this interconnectedness and understanding this and the impact on climate change, and other kinds of things, as well as our relationships.

    LECLERCQ: Now, would you have like incorporated all of this under maybe like a peace studies program, similar to the one that exists in some universities; or would you make it a separate entity, something that's like a requirement like communications or some form of math?

    OLSON: Well, at the very least, I think that there should be lectures or seminar series. These would turn into discussions rather than just someone standing up at a podium and lecturing. Various professors would be encouraged to address some of these kinds of things, and then encourage students to be involved and what they would do. If there're spin-offs, there many times their student organizations, there are some discussion groups at the residence halls on certain floors or other things. One point I was approached because they wanted a spiritual floor on one of the residence halls. They wanted people just to get together, that they would be discussing ethics, try to live ethically, try to figure out what that means. They'd be encouraged to keep a journal and then we would have these circles if I may say so, powerhouse and encourage students to share how infusing a part of their life with the spiritual dimension, what kind of impact that might have. Something like this could incorporate a number of different groups. Why not have a column in the Northern Star, for example, a weekly column on a certain subject too and then have guest writers or this kind of thing. Then, of course, these are the kind of things that people support with websites and other things, blogs.

    LECLERCQ: In that case, would you have it be more student-led or faculty-led?

    OLSON: I would have to be both. It would have to. If someone wants to offer a topic or class within a department, then I would think that one of these topics could be encouraged. Certainly, even a section within say, the comparative religion of Southeast Asia, a section on “What do these various religions have to say about the environment?” for example.
  • Synopsis: Diversity over Time at NIU
    Keywords: Exchange Students; Thailand; Thai Students; South America; Kenya; Indonesia; International Relations; Inclusivity; Diversity; Indonesia; England; Australia; Malaysia; Southeast Asia.
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: That would be quite interesting to read. In that case, would you say that NIU is changed in the cases of like workplace inclusivity and diversity in your time at NIU to incorporate some of these ideas?

    OLSON: Has it changed in terms of what, again, please?

    LECLERCQ: Inclusivity, including people and diversifying? Sort of welcoming in some of these groups, like you mentioned the exchange students.

    OLSON: Yes, it's changed in terms of diversity, but I wouldn't say in terms of being more diverse or anything. It's always been pretty diverse. I've been pretty impressed with how diverse NIU has been. One of the greatest things about the ambiance of NIU was the presence of students from Asia, especially Southeast Asia, because of its legacy, there were students from Malaysia. When I got here, sometimes there were a dozen students from Thailand studying various things. We would have potlucks and get together with them and speak Thai and share delicious food. In fact, one point and I wrote a little story about this for the Center’s newsletter at one point, I think three American guys ended up marrying three Thai ladies—whom they met here at NIU initially—and they're all still married, I'm happy to say. These things affected the atmosphere, the exchange and the energy, the vitality, so on of the things that were going on. After 9/11, I think there were fewer students from Southeast Asia. I doubt if that's a sole factor, but it's just been difficult. Southeast Asian students tell me it's difficult to get into the United States. Relatives tell me it's too far. It's too difficult. We have fewer of these students. Many of them are going to England, Australia, other alternative places now instead of coming to NIU, unfortunately. I'm also happy to say, and I'm really proud that at our learning center as well within foreign languages, that we had a consistently diverse staff of students working for us. In our heyday, I would say we probably had nine undergrad [students] and four grad [students] helping to support our center. The grads came from Kenya, Indonesia, Thailand, places in South America and the students too were, some of them are from Africa and several of them were gay, different orientations of gender, different backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds. We got along very well. I think that that is the kind of atmosphere I like. That's one of the best things that I remember about working at that center and at NIU, is how diverse it is and can be.
  • Synopsis: Outside Influences to Campus Culture
    Keywords: 9/11; International Relations; Classroom Culture; Campus Culture; Student Life; Homeland Security; 2-16 Presidential Election (US)
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: You've mentioned a couple outside events. Are there any significant ones that stand out to you that you feel have impacted campus culture or official policy in your time here? Please feel free to explain them to your content.

    OLSON: Well, the thing that's affected NIU and my friends and morale and everything else the most is just the lack of interest in funding education. I would say that there seem to be more money. There seem to be more creativity and so losing that kind of funding really changed the landscape and if you're not really happy, if you're not really able to move forward and do things, keep up with technology for example or other things, then it's very difficult to offer something and be proud of it or be innovative and so on. Other things have happened. Again, this might be due to lack of communication and collaboration. The NIU had a cutting edge website for language called “SEA-site” [Southeast Asia] and the server crashed at some point and a lot of the data was lost. Now we had a great reputation worldwide for what we were offering on that and I'm not sure if part of that was funding or part of it again was the lack of collaboration. That was a very unfortunate thing because it set back our reputation and the development of that project quite a bit when you crashed the server and then attempt to recover, and you can never really recover.

    LECLERCQ: Are there any other events say, maybe on the national level or even state level that you feel have affected? It could be anything like, not just budget cuts and such.

    OLSON: Not other than I've mentioned. I don't think. I'd have to think about that for a while. Again, I'm naive, but obviously and I think a lot of other people aren't found they're pretty naive too, but the outcome of the 2016 election and what that has done, what I presume it's done to a lot of education is or depending on how it goes forward, all of this goes forward can be devastating. How, for example, do you set an example when the example that's sitting, leading our country is doing all the various things that we're trying to teach our students not to do? First of all, I would like my students to use good English. I would like them to be able to read and write and express themselves clearly. Then—I don't know very much about social media—I'm very honest about that. I'm not involved in Facebook. I'm not involved in some other dimensions of social media, but we shouldn't be involved in name calling. We shouldn't be involved in bullying. All of these things that I would be attempting to teach my students, then I would have to be the example, but then they turn on the TV or go off to a different dimension into some, bizarre-zone where this leader is not informed, not prepared and then acting like an ass. To me, that would be really difficult I think to be teaching and then have that be a prominent example because already in some of the opportunities, I did have to teach language, as I mentioned, I taught some cultural anthropology, some Southeast Asian history, and culture. I already had some students in the class going, "Yes, but—I heard this or yes but—", but if you were to listen to the news today, you could do a daily, "Yes, but—". Then some smarty and class is going to start to quote and this is what our leaders said. It's just something that you would probably have to deal with but you wouldn't want to have to be dealing with it.

    LECLERCQ: Would you say there are any other more personal events that have affected say campus culture or anything? I know you had briefly mentioned the NIU shooting and 9/11. Would you say those have been a major player in some of the policy decisions or at least how campus life is now structured at NIU?

    OLSON: Well, all of those things have influenced our privacy, our sense of security. Even when I go to the doctor's office now, the nurse seemed to ask me a set of questions: “Do you feel safe in your home? Do you have any other stress and other kinds of things like this?” We, I guess should be inquiring into our students life and—I hope that the housing and dining and so on does this—but we ought to be asking them, "Do you feel safe in your residence hall and do you have a semblance of peace and quiet and does it allow you to get your work done that you need to get done?" These kinds of things I can't really think of too many other events that have had an impact like that, but they're so profound from the time that the after 9/11 and many people forget about this, that I went to my dentist's office and they made me sign a form that said if Homeland Security wants to look at my dental records that I have to sign off and then give Homeland Security access to my dental records. Some young people are not aware that we had to do that, but those kinds of things just profoundly change everything.
  • Synopsis: Knowledge for Incoming Persons
    Keywords: DeKalb, Illinois; Northern Illinois University; Incoming Students; Campus Life; Campus Living; Change over Time; Midwest (region); Midwestern Living
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: In that case, what would you tell someone, like yourself, say a student, faculty, or staff coming to NIU for the first time in 2019? Would you want them to understand or know anything about the past?

    OLSON: Of course. History is important. Stories are what we have, and we don't tell stories often enough. I think this is very important, I appreciate this opportunity. I've taught oral history and from person-centered ethnography and these kinds of things from an anthropological perspective. Yes, when someone comes to a place, we ought to offer orientation to that person. Of course, that orientation is going to be biased and my experience is limited and biased. I ought to tell part of my story and then I should try to give a person an honest assessment of what I've experienced—which has been some real highs and some deep, deep frustrations. Yes, those stories are all important. Part of what the answer to your inquiry right now is what I've tried to convey in what I've said so far. I think that if someone were to come here, and especially if they're from a different place, not the Midwest or something, one ought to try to explain the ambiance of the town a bit. What has happened or what one is observed in the town and so on. Then also the kinds of things that have gone on or haven't gone on at NIU.
  • Synopsis: Outdoor Spaces and Eateries at NIU
    Keywords: Eateries; Campus Life; Campus Living; Student Life; Student Culture; Campus Culture; Outdoor Spaces; Recreational Spaces; Music; Holmes Student Center; DuSable Hall; Founders Memorial Library; Pottinger House; Center for Southeast Asia Studies; Live Performances; Folk Music
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Is there anything else you think deserves attention during this 125th anniversary year?

    OLSON: Well, from my perspective, NIU should be congratulated for maintaining a quality center for Southeast sian Studies through the years when other places have let it go or maybe even have lost it. I'm not fully aware of all of that. That's one thing— that's what drew me here and one of the key things that drew me to this place. It continues to be an interest and I think it should be supported. Unfortunately, NIU is sort of in transition a lot. Even, for example, look at now in the fall, people are coming back, and the [Holmes Student] center is under construction. That's what students are greeted with, construction. What kind of vibe does that set? One thing—and I haven't mentioned this yet—I guess that is really needed is space for students to sit down, meet, breathe deeply and talk to each other. Now, some of that happens in the library [Founders Memorial Library]. The library is reconfigured itself, to their credit, to allow coffees and other kinds of things in certain areas where students can sit down and relax and then exchange ideas and information. The Center for Southeast Asian Studies, for example, has had limited space. At one point a director agreed to occupy a certain space, which is the space we are in now, the Pottinger House or whatever it is and it's too small. If you're going to have a center like that, you ought to have a beautiful place in which to put it. Then there ought to be comfortable places where students can sit around, chat, meet some of the associates who might be more inclined to pass through, have some lunches, other kinds of things and just hang, chill. NIU need more spaces like that in different ways. Then again, in the fall here we come back and, "Oh boy under construction, not done yet." I don't think that's a good way to keep people comfortable. We need some good food too. That's a been a really sore spot at NIU throughout the years. There just really have not been any good, healthy food. How important is that? Share ideas and you ought to be able to share ideas over good food, good coffees and other kinds of things. I don't even see why we can't have a beer on campus. That's one of the beautiful things about going up to Madison [University of Wisconsin at Madison]. You can sit there and the Rathskeller right by the Lake and have a beer and unwind. Then that brings some discussions sometimes too a little different level. Those are the kinds of things I would try to encourage, a nice beer and a wine.

    LECLERCQ: They've tried doing some of that. I've seen it in DuSable Hall, they've got now a restaurant in there and there's a bakery/bagel place down in the library. Would you say they should have one of those, like in all the buildings or like add more outdoor spaces too?

    OLSON: Well, in select buildings, why not? Sure. Yeah, have some outdoor spaces. The other thing is that we used to have some music. There used to be a coffee house in the Holmes Student Center, the base. Even during the day, or sometimes in the evenings, there'd be folk artists, different kinds of people coming in. It was a beautiful little venue, nice tables and booths and a small stage. I don't know, I saw a couple of pretty well-known folk guitars play there and you can chat with them. We need more music. More music venues who are pop-up music and different kinds of things like that.
  • Synopsis: Hidden Gems of NIU
    Keywords: Center for Southeast Asia Studies; NIU Anthropology Museum; Donn V. Hart Collection; Southeast Asia Collection; Hidden Gems
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Is there anything I haven't touched on that you'd like to add to or is there anything else you feel would deserve attention?

    OLSON: Southeast Asia Collection in the library is amazing. That deserves some attention, the fourth floor and the Donn V. Hart library collection there that's under-used. People have been pretty generous associates and so on, have been pretty generous about donating books, materials to that collection. That's I think a well-kept secret, but it supports the center, it supports various disciplines, it supports the whole campus in general. If you want to start to tap into that area. Anthropology Museum is quite a nice facility. They finally found someone who is just doing quite a professional job of running the museum and their collection in a lot of ways is pretty deep. It needs a good attention put to storage facilities. Sometimes even where they'd been put may have moisture problems and some of these other kinds of things which, of course, are not conducive to long-term storage. To me, those are some of the gems or the hidden gems.
  • Synopsis: Conclusion
    Keywords: Conducive Spaces; Parking; Village Commons Bookstore; Center for Southeast Asia Studies; Lincoln Highway; DeKalb, Illinois
    Transcript: LECLERCQ: Well, once again, thank you for participating. I have greatly appreciated your insight into all this, especially about the Southeast Asian Studies Center. I think it's time to conclude our interview.

    OLSON: Okay. You mean if you don't have anything else to ask me or if something else you feel I left something out or even according to what you've heard so far, then—?

    LECLERCQ: Is there anything you feel I've left out?

    OLSON: Not really, no. I just want to, once again emphasize conducive spaces for different kinds of things, making the campus a bit more livable. One other example would be plopping a parking structure right smack dab in the middle of campus and a key place. My understanding was at one time, and NIU could have bought some property near the VCB [Village Commons Bookstore] and then you could have built a parking structure perhaps in that parking lot along the VCB and then you could have built it up and then had it sit along in there on the edge of that part of campus. Then use that core area the library. Then if things across NIU or across Lincoln highway had developed in a different way such that, again, like my old days, nostalgic old days. I could walk right off campus and into some ethnic restaurant and have some good food and relax with friends, that would have been better. Thank you for the opportunity to share ideas, especially in the context of this event.

    LECLERCQ: Thank you so much for sharing with us. We greatly appreciate it.

    OLSON: Sure.



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