Supporting International Understanding through Giving

Jo Olson with a group of students at top the Martinelli Building in Brazil
Jo Olson (far right) with a group of students at top the
Martinelli Building in Brazil. 

It was at a very early age that Josephine Olson began her foray into the world of international business. Her father would often entertain his customers in the Olson family home.

“The clients were from various countries. Latin America particularly, but also from Japan and places like that,” Josephine said. “It was super interesting and I have always liked to meet people from other countries.”

When it came time to go to college, Josephine (or Jo as she is known to her friends) chose to pursue a degree in economics. Her intensifying interest in international economics took a leap forward when she took a summer job in Mexico City between her junior and senior years at Wellesley College. This international experience in 1963 was not part of Wellesley’s program, but Jo thought it was important enough to pursue it on her own.

“Students need to have international experiences to make them ‘citizens of the world.'"
- Josephine Olson

“The time in Mexico was one of the most useful experiences I ever had in my life,” Jo said of her summer position in the front office of an industrial cement fabrication company when she lived with two Mexican women, one of whom spoke no English. “It got me over the fear of living and working abroad and it consolidated my Spanish.”

Fast forward to 1971 and the now Dr. Olson came to the University of Pittsburgh to teach in the just 10-year-old school of business. At first, she had no opportunity to do anything international, but in the mid-1980s the Center for Latin American Studies invited her to participate in its United States Information Agency-sponsored exchange program with a university in Peru. This was the first of many opportunities to teach and consult in South America.

Over the next three decades, Jo worked to grow the global focus of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. Jo continued to find new ways to experience other cultures while sharing her knowledge with students. She has spent entire semesters teaching in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands and leading student trips to Europe and, especially to her first love, Latin America.

“I think students need to have international experiences to make them ‘citizens of the world’ as borders blur,” Jo said. “I know it’s hard for kids to go away because it often costs extra, so I thought I would give money to facilitate students studying abroad, especially undergrads.”

Jo made a planned gift to Pitt by naming the University as a beneficiary of her retirement account. The funds would be earmarked to help support study abroad trips for students in the College of Business Administration. However, that was not enough for her. She wanted to see the fruits of her philanthropy while she was still alive. So Jo began making annual gifts to the College of Business Administration to partially fund the travel of up to five students.

Danielle Kurkjian (far left) snaps a photo of her fellow Pitt students at a restaurant in Mexico
Danielle Kurkjian (far left) snaps a photo of her fellow Pitt students at a restaurant in Mexico. 

She also continues to lead short study abroad trips. The most recent was in March when she took a group of students on a comparative tour of Detroit and two cities in Mexico to study the auto industry. Among the students on the trip was Danielle Kurkjian (KATZ ’18).

Danielle admits she was apprehensive at first, if not downright scared to travel outside the United States. But by traveling as part of a group, with an experienced leader and a set itinerary, she was able to overcome those fears. “It was a good way to get to know that it was OK to travel internationally to big cities,” she said.

With her fears behind her, Danielle was able to focus on the educational and cultural learning aspects of the trip.

“To be able as a student to go and experience another country and their customs is invaluable,” Danielle said. “It enlightens you and makes you think in a broader sense rather than just through an American lens. Seeing things from another perspective becomes easier when you have experienced a culture different than the one in which you were raised.”

Upon graduation, Danielle was offered a job as a supply chain analyst with international industrial products firm, Crane Co. The position will require her to travel about 50% of the time. Half of that travel will be outside the U.S.

“I know for a fact that if I had not had the study abroad experience I would have said ‘no’ to the job offer; I would have told them ‘I’m not comfortable doing that.’ However, after researching and preparing to go to Mexico, I now know how to prepare for a trip and what culture-related questions to ask.”

Jo hopes to hear more stories like that. “We at Pitt recognize that more and more business is being done overseas; supply chains are more global. If we want to adequately train our students, they need more international experience,” she said. “And we have to make it more affordable for the students.”

“Jo Olson with a group of students during a recent trip to Puebla City, Mexico.
Jo Olson with a group of students during a recent trip to Puebla City, Mexico. 

Last year, 414 College of Business Administration and Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business students studied abroad in countries on nearly every continent, and more than half of all CBA and Katz students will have participated in an international experience by the time they earn their degree. However, Jo would like to see those numbers grow.

When asked why they were not able to travel abroad while at Pitt, most students cite a lack of funds as their number one reason. Dr. Josephine Olson is doing her part to lower that barrier through her annual and planned giving, with the hopes that others will follow her lead.

Follow this link to read more stories from this issue of the Chancellor's Circle Update.