Snapshots: A Teacher of Nurses

Augustana University alumna Joanne Olson

Meet 2016 Alumni Achievement Award recipient Dr. Joanne (Thompson) Olson '72, professor of nursing at the University of Alberta and associate faculty member at St. Stephen's Theological College. 

A recruiter for Augustana “breezed” into Kerkhoven, Minnesota, in the late 1960s and convinced Joanne (Thompson) Olson ’72 that she should attend Augustana instead of a diploma school for nursing. He sold her on the need to have a nursing degree from a college or university that could offer her a broad liberal arts education and that a degree in nursing could open doors including graduate degrees. 

His name was Milton Harvey, a long-time Augustana administrator. 

“A decision made nearly 50 years ago was the beginning of a great adventure,” Olson said. 

Following graduation, Olson began her career as a rural public health nurse in Willmar, Minnesota. She went on to earn her master’s degree in public health from the University of Minnesota, and then worked in St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri. By 1979, she had embarked on a career as an academic. She earned her doctorate in nursing at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, in 1993. She is married to Dr. David Olson ’71. The couple have made their home in Canada since 1981. 

Today she serves as a professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Alberta, perhaps one of the largest nursing programs in Canada, and as an associate faculty at St. Stephen’s Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. 

Olson also serves as a faith community nurse at Riverbend United Church. Olson’s teaching and research focuses on nurse-client communication, nursing education and spirituality in nursing. She co-authored a book on the theoretical basis of faith community nursing from the perspectives of theology and nursing. 

"My career seems like it has been many mini-careers, always changing, always interesting and never a dull moment."

Dr. Joanne (Thompson) Olson '72

“[Throughout it all, I had] endless encouragement and I believe that nine-tenths of education is encouragement,” she said. 

Olson counts three things as her greatest professional accomplishments: her international leadership with Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing that contributed to moving that association from a U.S.- based national society to a thriving global organization, being a pioneer leader in terms of introducing faith community nursing (parish nursing), and becoming a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. 

While at Augustana, nursing professor Dr. Joyce Nelson fueled Olson’s growing passion for community health nursing and health promotion activities, she said. 

“She exemplified how to teach and inspire and remains of one of my lifelong mentors,” Olson said. 

Olson said one of the greatest rewards of her current role is getting to work with graduate students from all over the world. Up next professionally, for the first time in their careers, the Olsons are collaborating on a research project: studying the effects of the May 2016 wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta, on pregnant women who were among the 90,000 people evacuated. 

The Olsons are interested in finding ways to reduce the stress of those women in an effort to promote healthy birth outcomes. 

Olson’s best Augie memories include Elsie’s cinnamon buns; meeting her husband, David, in a biology lab; and many wonderful times with her roommate Susan (Dean) Arnott and other 1972 nursing class members.