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Mother of 3 completes academic marathon — and some others along the way to ASU degree

Sophie Olson stands atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa at the completion of the first marathon in her seven-continent marathon tour. From 2013-2016, Olson ran seven marathons, one on each continent, while working full time and pursuing her bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering. Photo courtesy of Sophie Olson

May 10, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

When Sophie Olson started working toward her engineering degree in 2013, she didn’t think she would graduate until 2020.

If it seems like seven years is a long time to finish a bachelor’s degree, try doing so while working full-time and raising three children — and running a marathon on all seven continents. Needless to say, Sophie Olsen knows a thing or two about perseverance: She will be walking in this spring’s convocation ceremony.

A new start

Though she had always been interested in engineering, Olson took a what she describes as a “standard route” in education, earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Aoyama Gakuin University in her native Japan. In 1992, she completed a master’s degree in political science from Florida State University.

She returned to Japan to work for Amkor Technology, a semiconductor product packaging and test services provider, and hoped to someday return to the United States. In 2005, she got her chance, and relocated to Chandler to work in Amkor’s business operations department.

Olson recalls that it was tough starting over in a new place, but fortunately her children — ages six and eight at the time — were well-positioned, having attended an international school in Japan.

While working for Amkor in Arizona, she became interested in product development, but such positions required an engineering degree. So in 2011, she started taking community college classes, slowly working toward attending a four-year university.

“I took a few credits at a time, but eventually I ran out of classes to take, so I transferred to ASU,” she said.

Though she says she “had a clear goal to become an engineer,” Olson was unsure what degree program to pursue, but eventually settled on materials science and engineering, enrolling in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. 

“I didn’t know much about materials science — but looking through the programs, to be in any kind of product development, you need to understand the fundamental, atomic-level ways things work and change,” Olson said.

At ASU, Olson continued taking a few classes at a time, decided she wanted to graduate at the same time as some of her fellow classmates.

“I missed seeing the same people, and I was motivated to try and graduate with the friends I’d made,” she said.

While still working full time, she committed to 18 credit hours in fall 2016, advancing her projected graduation considerably. She’s kept up the high-intensity workload, but she says it wasn’t easy.

“Lately, I haven’t been sleeping more than three hours a night,” Olson said. “Power naps have become pretty routine.”

A global marathon tour

Olson, however, is no stranger to pushing her limits. From 2013 to 2016, she ran a marathon on each continent. What started as a challenge to get back in shape after giving birth to her third child grew dramatically in scope.

“While I was running [the Phoenix Women's Half Marathon in 2013]a woman I spoke with mentioned she was running a marathon on each continent,” Olson said. “I thought, ‘that sounds fun.’ So I decided to do it too.”

And she did, running races in between semesters. Her first took her to Africa, where she ran up Mount Kilimanjaro, followed by marathons in Chile, Antarctica and New Zealand, which she counted as close enough to the Australian continent. Her final three marathons brought her back home for the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon, then to Belgium and finally finishing her quest at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat Marathon.

While Olson’s determination is also reflected in her academic career, she credits the support systems at ASU as a driving force in helping her graduate.

“If I hadn’t gone to school here, I don’t think I could have graduated,” Olson said. “The support system is so good and thorough and my advisor kept me on track. Whenever I needed help, it was always easy to find it.”

Making great strides in materials engineering

Olson has used her marathon running to inform her approach to education, displaying a similar tenacity in her studies.

“Everybody knows how to run, but you need to train for four months before the race if you want to pass the finish line,” she said. “Same with school work, you learn at lectures, but if you don't practice — do homework or study for a test — you will not be able to answer in the exam.”

President’s Professor James Adams, the program chair for materials science and engineering, saw Olson’s dedication first hand while overseeing her Senior Capstone Design course, which spans two semesters.

Olson’s capstone team was tasked with developing an innovative method to deposit thin metal films onto a ceramic substrate using 3-D printing, but they were unable to find a commercial printers capable of doing so, according to Adams.

“So, her team designed and built their own 3-D printer, and demonstrated that it could work.  Overall, she demonstrated hard work and good perseverance with a difficult and sometimes frustrating project,” Adams said. “To put this in perspective, typical metal printers cost $100,000 to $1 million, and they built their pilot for under $1,000.”

Engineering runs in the family

Seeing the value in engineering, Olson encouraged her two oldest children to look into it as well. Now two of her three children — Kai and Mio Ozawa — are fellow students in the Fulton Schools, pursuing their undergraduate degrees in aerospace and chemical engineering, respectively.

Both are students in Barrett, The Honors College, and work as community assistants on campus. Kai is in ROTC and plans to join the U.S. Armed Forces when he completes studies for his degree. Olson says Mio, a freshman, is enjoying chemical engineering so far.

As Olson prepares for graduation, she offers the following advice to her children:

“I want them to keep going. There is no end for your academic endeavors — graduation is one of the points,” she said. “Regardless of what they do, I want them to not quit once they started.”

After all, life is a marathon, not a sprint.

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