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Elena Olson headshot

By Megan Nash

Elena Olson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Information Systems at the VCU School of Business, has a knack for turning challenges into opportunities. Originally from Belarus, her journey took her across continents, picking up degrees in engineering and a love for teaching. With a background in electrical and biomedical engineering, Elena has developed a unique approach to teaching technology creatively, and her methods were put to the test during the pandemic. Ever wonder how a favorite color can change everything? Let’s find out.

Where can we find you on the VCU map?

I am always on campus–my office. I love the space and seriously feel at home here (writing from my office right now 🙂 ).

Can you share a bit about your educational journey? Where did you go to school and what was your major?

I have the unique privilege of calling two beautiful institutions my alma mater, reflecting the dual affections I hold for my native Belarus and my adopted home in the U.S.

In Minsk, I graduated from the Belarusian State Technical University, which laid the foundational stones of my academic journey. Across the ocean in Kansas, I had the honor of furthering my education at the University of Kansas, an experience that enriched my perspectives and knowledge profoundly.

What inspired you to pursue a career in your field, and how has your journey evolved over the years?

My career has been driven by a passion for teaching, technology and creativity enriched by global experiences.

Starting as an electrical engineering major back home in Belarus, I progressed from working for several years as an industrial engineer to going back to school in Kansas to pursue my doctorate in electrical engineering.

I then taught Biomedical Engineering and English in Colombia. Each step was a building block leading me to a pivotal role as a department chair of Computer Information Systems at a private college and eventually to a position in the Department of Information Systems at the VCU School of Business, where I teach a range of subjects from Programming to Systems Analysis.

Key moments like leading our VCU students in Córdoba, Spain, with the International Consulting Program (ICP) have been standout experiences, fueling my creative approach to education. Courses I have been taking across VCU Arts and World Studies have broadened my perspective, influencing the way I approach teaching.

The core inspiration behind my journey is my deep appreciation for human connections and a desire to create enriching experiences for others. This has always been at the heart of my teaching philosophy, guiding me to focus on user experience in education.

Are there any key accomplishments or milestones in your academic career that you’re particularly proud of?

I am particularly proud of a recent milestone where I had the honor of serving as the program chair for the Southeast Decision Sciences Institute (SEDSI) 2024 conference.

My longstanding involvement with SEDSI, which has felt like my professional family, culminated in this opportunity to lead and give back. The conference was not only a success but also marked one of the largest in recent years, with our strategic marketing efforts attracting a record number of student researchers.

The level of engagement required was immense, comparable to writing and defending another dissertation. It’s gratifying to have overseen initiatives like the student paper competition and to have managed a diverse program with over 250 presentations. Under my stewardship, we achieved a significant increase in student participation with 31 submissions, reflecting our community’s vibrant and inclusive academic spirit.

A highlight of this experience was witnessing the transformation of VCU Information Systems master’s student Abrina Collins, who went from assisting the program chair as an hourly work-study appointment to playing a central role in the conference’s success. It exemplifies the kind of environment I strive to create­–one where students are empowered to excel and lead.

Another defining accomplishment was my role as the Creativity Tsaritsa for the VCU School of Business’ “Creativity at Work” campaign, which commenced in fall 2019 and adapted creatively to the constraints imposed by COVID-19.

The “VCU Drawn Together” initiative, a collaboration with artist Noah Scalin, became a unifying symbol during a challenging time, fostering a sense of community and resilience. I contributed to nurturing our school’s spirit through various projects, such as virtual museum visits and planting workshops, which helped maintain connectedness and well-being during the pandemic’s isolation. These initiatives underscore my dedication to fostering an academic environment enriched with empathy, innovation, collaboration and community.

There was also article about my Creativity Tsaritsa role impact that VCU covered, it was right before we went into isolation.

Can you share a memorable experience from your teaching career that had a significant impact on your approach to education?

One moment from my teaching career stands out as both tender and transformative. In spring 2021, when the pandemic necessitated the sudden shift of my in-person programming course to online, the class faced the challenge of maintaining the close-knit community we had formed face-to-face. We had a running joke that underscored our rapport: “If you’re out of questions, at least ask about my favorite color—just don’t be silent.”

In our first virtual meeting, the silence following my lecture was palpable. I invited questions, urging interaction when someone broke through the quiet with a heartfelt “What’s your favorite color?” It was a profound moment that bridged the physical distance, brought many smiles and created a shared sense of resilience. I feel that this simple exchange was a reminder of the essential human connections at the heart of education: connectedness, empathy and solidarity through shared experiences.

This experience didn’t exactly reshape my approach to teaching; it sharpened it, reminding me what truly matters. My online and hybrid courses have evolved beyond mere instruction; they are communities where mentorship and mutual growth thrive. My classroom fosters an inclusive environment, emphasizing empathetic engagement, fair grading and responsiveness to individual student needs. Initiatives like virtual cultural exchanges have been integral in supporting students’ adjustment to a post-COVID-19 campus life, embodying my commitment to their holistic development.

The response from students has been overwhelming; in the past three years, my courses have seen 1,231 enrollments with consistently full waitlists. This demand is a testament to the value of fostering an academic community that supports each student’s journey, and it remains a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy.

And yes, I also had a student helping me complete my own homework in a French course after I helped her finishing her programming project over the office hours. She did not have to do that, just stayed behind to help me, recognizing I am a student too. Priceless! 🙂

Create a one-sentence pitch for a TED Talk that you would love to give some day.

In a TED Talk, I would highlight the transformative power of cultivating creativity, empathy and the importance of connectedness in education, drawing from a journey that spans continents, cultures and the pivot to virtual learning.

I think this sentence truly captures my global perspective, adaptive approach during the COVID-19 transition to online teaching, and my emphasis on maintaining human connections throughout my academic career.

What would you say your “secret sauce” is as an educator?

My “secret sauce” as an educator lies in weaving a tapestry of genuine care with the threads of mentorship, connection and community. It’s about fostering an environment where students don’t just learn—they feel seen, supported and inspired to grow both intellectually and personally.

What never fails to make you smile?

Flowers and open smiles. 🙂

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