Crystal Olson named to USA Today’s College Academic Team

The surprise is not that Western Carolina University student Crystal Olson was named to a USA Today College Academic Team. The surprise is that she can find the time to talk about it.

Perhaps it was the WCU junior’s busy schedule of academic and extracurricular activities that impressed the judges at USA Today. Or maybe it was the fact that the chemistry major spent last summer in a laboratory of pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome Inc., working with other chemists in seeking a cure for the bone disease osteoporosis.

Olson recently learned she is one of 46 students earning honorable mention in the newspaper’s “All-USA College Academic Team” competition, which this year included 682 student nominees from across the nation. Olson’s name was listed, along with 60 members of the first, second and third teams, in the February 15 edition of the newspaper.

Contest judges considered student grades, activities, leadership, and how students use their intellectual skills outside the classroom.

The daughter of Bernard and Terri Olson of Hickory, Olson impressed the contest judges just as she has been impressing WCU faculty members since her arrival on campus. Olson has been enrolled in WCU’s Honors College, a program for high-achieving students, and she has been named to the dean’s list, for students with grade-point averages of 3.5 or better, each semester of her college career.

Three Western faculty members wrote recommendation letters to help her win the USA Today honor. Another faculty member in the Olson fan club is Jill Dix Ghnassia, dean of the Honors College.

“Crystal is the type of young person one loves to have around, not just in class, but in any setting,” Ghnassia said. “She is tremendously driven, academically talented, organized, sincere, and dedicated, and she possesses that rare combination of charity toward others, as seen in her volunteer work, with superior scholastic achievement. The world is going to be a better place because of Crystal’s presence in it.”

Some victims of osteoporosis may someday benefit from the work she did last summer as an intern in a Glaxo-Wellcome laboratory in Durham. She worked alongside four other company chemists in producing chemical compounds that are considered potential cures for the disease.

“We created the compounds by adding groups of elements and then submitted them for testing to find out how good they are as drugs. It was very exciting and very worthwhile,” Olson said.

Olson receives a $1,000 scholarship each year through the Glaxo Wellcome Foundation Women’s Science Scholarship Program. An essay she wrote about her summer internship was included in the materials she turned in to the USA Today contest judges.

Olson just as easily could have written an essay about time management. In addition to her superior classroom work, she finds time to serve as chair of the Honors College student board of directors, and as assistant to the chairman of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Day. She also is a member of the university’s Golden Ambassadors student recruitment organization, the chemistry club and Baptist Student Union.

Olson is minoring in professional writing at Western, and she hones her creative writing skills with submissions to Nomad, the campus literary magazine, which will publish a short story and a poem she crafted this year.

Olson serves with other Western students in organizing a tree-planting ceremony the Office of Student Affairs holds each year in honor of deceased students. She also volunteers as a judge at Odyssey of the Mind tournaments, a competition for pre-college kids.

Olson is an athlete, as well. She was on the sixth-ranked 400-meter relay team in the state as a senior at Newton-Conover High School. At WCU, she is in the karate club (she holds an orange belt) and lifts weights and runs. And, she does find time to watch television and “hang out with friends,” and she enjoys hiking and camping and watching meteor showers from Waterrock Knob, a high peak not too far from the WCU campus.

Olson attributes her ability to maintain such a schedule to “a very, very good day planner.”

“I just take care of the school work first, and then fit in whatever else I have time for,” she said.

Looking down the road, Olson is interested in going to graduate school and earning a doctoral degree after she graduates from WCU. The field of medicinal chemistry, with its potential for finding cures for the diseases that plague humankind, interests her as a career.