Alumni Spotlight: Rachel Olsen

Rachel Olsen (MA ’08)

During my second year in the English Master’s program at K-State, I gave an incoming graduate student named Jarrod McCartney (MA ‘09) a tour. Four years later, I married that graduate student and made use of my degree as an English Language Program teacher, writing center director, and English teacher at a two-year college. We had a baby named Louise, and we lived in Oklahoma.

Life chugged along much the way it does for someone trying to build a career, raise a child, and enjoy life. That said, a two academic, two teacher household had its challenges. Like many women, I shelved my plans to earn a Ph.D. so my husband could earn his first, but over time it became clear that traditional paths in higher education weren’t right for either one of us.


So, five years ago I moved with my family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Jarrod was hired as a heritage tourism and development director. At the time of our move, there were no teaching positions for hire in the area that matched my skill set, reliable childcare was not available, and my mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Once again, like many women, I put my career aspirations on pause. Since 2015, I have been a stay-at-home parent, taught online, buried my mother, became a certified barista, owned a tiny pop-up coffee business, and worked as a tour guide at the National Willa Cather Center (NWCC).

Who could have predicted that my ability to give a good tour would once again steer my life in a new direction?

After a little more than a year of part-time employment, I was promoted to education specialist, and in January of this year, I was named the education coordinator for the NWCC. My duties in this role include coordinating group and school tours, supervising tour guide and bookstore staff, helping to create new educational programs for students reading Willa Cather or learning about Nebraska history, assisting with the planning and execution of our annual spring conference, developing a series of author talks, coordinating our scholarship application process, and educator outreach.


Diving into these responsibilities was already exciting and intimidating, but then COVID-19 erupted into a pandemic and pivoting, evolving, veering, whatever present progressive verb you want to use, became necessary to remain at least somewhat operational.  We transformed our spring conference into an entirely virtual event in seven weeks, we created virtual tour content for our website, launched a National Poetry month video project, uploaded virtual art galleries, and retained all of our staff thanks in part to a PPP loan.

And our evolution continues. A series of virtual author talks is in development, along with virtual and socially distanced programming at the historic Red Cloud Opera House. Although we have opened our center and our Cather sites to the public in a reduced capacity, education staff is developing enhanced virtual tour content supported by a Cuseum mobile app thanks to an NEH Cares grant.

Humanities, history, and learning move forward here in Red Cloud no matter what. I am proud to be a part of work in service of an American author’s legacy that not only revived my career but continues to invigorate a rural community.

— Rachel Olsen (MA ’08)

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