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Weaving Parachutes
Melissa Hatfield Riggs

NAU's New Olson Family Foundation Scholarships

JoAnn Olson took her first weaving class in college and said, "I'm really going to do this someday." She later opened a studio, and she loved it. When her husband developed multiple sclerosis, she moved on to other careers in order to take care of her family. But she has never stopped weaving disparate strands and threads into a unified work of art, and disparate lives and cultures into a larger family. This year, she has woven for NAU graduate students who demonstrate a fierce determination to serve their communities and make a difference for others. She has woven them a parachute.

"Parachute" comes from a French word with a Latin root and literally means "against the fall": something that checks a fall. In this instance, the parachute takes the form of scholarships. A scholarship can carry you and cushion you and help you land softly on target at the end of a challenging journey. A scholarship can provide stability in free-fall. A scholarship can help you soar.

The image of weaving parachutes comes from a lovely line by American poet William Stafford: "I have woven a parachute out of everything broken." It's not entirely apt here. But it somehow seems right to say that JoAnn Olson is weaving parachutes. So people won't be broken. So they can aspire and move forward, and cause others around them to look up in awe and point their fingers and aspire, too.

The Scholarship

JoAnn and her late husband Ike, owners of the Briar Patch Inn in Sedona, had long intended to start a scholarship. In June 2008, less than a year after Ike's death, the announcement was posted online and on list-serves. More than 85 graduate students applied. In August, five were notified that they would receive a $9,500 stipend for 2008-09 graduate study at NAU. With satisfactory progress, they will be eligible to reapply next year.

The new Olson Family Foundation Scholarship is currently the only privately funded scholarship offered through the NAU Graduate College. The scholarship covers approximately 50 percent of a year's expenses for full-time NAU graduate study.

Graduate Dean Ramona Mellott is delighted. "Unless they receive a full-time assistantship, our students are largely dependent upon external, usually national, scholarship opportunities which are enormously competitive and mostly devoted to the natural and physical sciences. The Olson Foundation scholarships are tremendously exciting in a number of ways, and foremost among them is that they are open to graduate students in any discipline."

Interwoven Cultures, Interwoven Lives

While the Olson scholarship is open to any student accepted for NAU graduate study who holds a 3.0 GPA and has not received a full-time assistantship, the scholarship criteria expresses the Olson family's special interest in funding Native American, Hispanic, and other students with an interest in diversity and an ethic of service. The family has had "a warm and nurturing involvement" with the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni Indians of Arizona. The relationship began when Ike gave his new bride a silver and turquoise Navajo bracelet: "probably the only Navajo jewelry in the state of Washington at that time," JoAnn says. On a visit in the fifties, the couple fell in love with the state, the cultures, and the sunshine of Arizona. In 1961 they moved here, building a home on the nearly empty north slope of Mummy Mountain in Paradise Valley. From their windows they saw nothing but desert. It became a family tradition to camp on the reservation monthly, and they began to collect art directly from the artists they met there.

Arizona is richer for the many distinctive strands of which it is woven. The mix of cultures is key to JoAnn's sense of place and her passion for Arizona. Its diverse peoples are her neighbors, her friends, 20-year employees, and the artists whose works furnish the cabins at the Briar Patch and are displayed for sale in the lobby. Their lives and families are intertwined with hers, and the relationships are precious to both. She speaks of some women friends, Navajo friends in their seventies, who come to visit. One is a very fine weaver, and JoAnn buys all her rugs. Neither she nor her husband speaks English, but their daughter comes along to translate. "After a year of their coming," Olson says, "she gave me a big hug, and now she always does, and her husband gives me a hug and calls me 'sister.' His own sisters have all died." They are family.

One motivation for this scholarship is JoAnn's first-hand knowledge of the difficulties Native American young people experience trying to maintain a traditional way of life in the so-called "modern" world. "A young Navajo woman that worked for us came from a very traditional family and church," she recalls. "She had so many ceremonies that she was virtually required to attend, and for her to be part of that and to be in our work world created a real conflict for her. I helped her go to community college; she went for one year and then quit. I also helped one young Hispanic woman who attended community college for one year and then quit."

For the new scholarship, JoAnn decided to focus on the graduate level where the students have a proven record of academic accomplishment. NAU is highly accessible and right next door with one of the largest populations of Native American students in the country. Scholarship applicants are asked to write an essay about their career goals and how they will use their degree to serve their greater community. The criteria bring to mind someone like Stefanie Raymond-Whish, who received her Ph.D. last May.  While not an Olson applicant, Raymond-Whish is the first female Navajo student to receive her doctorate in biology at NAU, and her research on cancer in Navajo women is attracting national attention (see the story).

"My husband and I always felt so strongly that education is key to building a good life," JoAnn says. "I hope this scholarship will give recipients the ability to achieve their goals, and hopefully they will go out and be role models for others in their home community. If someone graduates and gets a degree in graduate school, it can reflect on others who do not see many people moving on to higher levels or who are not as aware of the value of advanced degrees. The more students who can be in this position, the better if will be for their community. It leads others to say, 'I can do that.'"


Ask JoAnn Olson why she gives, and she says simply,"What could be more satisfying than to help someone build a better life? It makes my heart feel good."
JoAnn Olson

 Dreamweaver

There are recurring phrases in JoAnn's conversation about the significance of scholarships: go on, move forward, find a better life. Perhaps this is because there was a time in her life when moving on became very difficult.

"In my situation, someone might think, 'Oh, she's lucky. She was able to have her life taken care of.' But it wasn't. My husband developed multiple sclerosis when he was 32 years old, went into a wheelchair at age 44, and had to abandon his dental practice. We had three young children and no other income. I had a studio in Scottsdale at that time where I was a very happy weaver, designing things, and I realized that this could not support us. So I had to determine what I could do to support our family.

"I felt that investment in real estate could work. So I bought a few books and went to the library and studied for two weeks. I had $200 to invest. I was fortunate that this happened in the seventies; it was a very good time for real estate. Even so, I had many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make the next payment on a property. And that's how I started investing in real estate." She laughs in amazement at her own temerity. "I was totally ignorant of the whole process."

The Briar Patch Inn came later, in 1983. "We had left Scottsdale and bought a ranch on the Verde River in Cottonwood, and I saw the Briar Patch was for sale. I knew about Oak Creek Canyon, but there wasn't much of a place to stay at that time. And so I walked on the property, and it was immediate love, and I said, with great serenity and sureness, 'I will buy it.' And I had no money." She laughs again. "I asked the realtor why the owners were selling, and he said they lived back east and wanted to buy a home in Sedona. 'I wonder if they'd want a home in Paradise Valley?' I asked, and he said, '‘You never know.' So he called them that evening, they flew out the next day, and they took our home in Paradise Valley as our down payment on the Briar Patch. 'Meant to be."

Today the Briar Patch Inn in Sedona has 19 cottages on nine acres of sycamore, oak, and fruit trees beside Oak Creek at the base of the canyon's soaring red rock mountains. A client from Hong Kong and another from France call the Briar Patch "paradise on earth." Many come again and again.

JoAnn and Ike built a new and satisfying second life: Ike began a new career after returning to school to train as a counselor for diabetics, JoAnn ran the Briar Patch and continued with real estate investment, and they raised their three children. Rob returned from work overseas twelve years ago to manage the inn, although JoAnn is as involved as ever. Scott is an NAU alumnus and lives in Flagstaff, and Peri Lynn lives in California.

JoAnn's children are very pleased and supportive of the scholarship. "Upon my death, I have asked them to see that this will follow through, and they're all agreeable with that," JoAnn says. "We committed to five years of funding. We'll see how it works and if it's good, and if everyone is pleased we'll continue with the same format, I think."

Weave into one another

Recipients of the first Olson Family Foundation Scholarship are graduate students Annel Cordero in counseling psychology, Renee Tolino in elementary education, Alvina Begay in health administration, Tennell Gilmore in physical therapy, and Gerald Etsitty in school psychology. All were passionate about Arizona's need for highly skilled professionals in their disciplines and made a compelling case for their own potential, with an advanced degree, to truly make a difference. They, too, will be weavers, weaving bright threads directly into the fabric of others' lives.

Remembering JoAnn Olson, they can encourage others to weave parachutes.

Over time, parachutes may fill the Arizona sky.


—Melissa Hatfield Riggs, Graduate College 

(Details on the Olson Family Foundation Scholarship are available online. Watch for next year's application information in the spring.)

Why Support for Graduate Students is Critical

Support targeted to graduate students is becoming increasingly important nationwide. In a 2007 report, the Council of Graduate Schools warned that America's economic leadership is eroding and our primacy in global competitiveness is threatened.

“The consensus is that strengthening graduate education—the backbone of American competitiveness and innovation—is key to a prosperous and secure future.” Graduate education has a vital role “in ensuring that the knowledge creators of tomorrow have the cultural awareness, skills, and expertise to compete effectively in a knowledge-based, global economy.”

The study concludes that expanded participation in graduate-level education for all U.S. citizens, especially from underrepresented minority groups, should be a priority in all fields.

Graduate Education: The Backbone of American
Competitiveness and Innovation
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