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Updated: October 11, 2021 2021 Outstanding Women in Business

Outstanding Women in Business: Olson blazes a trail in the world of engineering

Photo | Matt Wright Sandra Olson

The first things you’ll notice when speaking with Sandra Olson is her quick sense of humor, her infectious laugh, and most importantly, her intelligence.

“I’ve always admired her ability to command the room and be prepared, but still find time to help other women,” Julie Kazarian, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Worcester State University.

A vastly experienced engineer, Olson has the ability to break concepts down in an easy-to-grasp, no-nonsense manner. This easy-going personality and industry knowledge allowed her to thrive in the male-dominated fields of engineering, utilities, and now facilities management.

Sandra Olson, Worcester State University

“I like to tell people that I have worked for the three places that people hate the most: utilities, an insurance company, and the state,” Olson said.

For the past 18 years, Olson has served as Worcester State’s assistant vice president for facilities operations and planning. Her role encompasses preserving current structures, renovating the older facilities, and building new spaces on campus. Everything from the day-to-day operations of grounds work, janitorial staff, and managing the university’s 80 facilities workers, to crisis management, falls under Olson’s job description. She is on call 24/7/365, and is the key problem solver for any facilities-related issues big or small.

“A lot of people have said that they would not want my job,” she said. “No one ever says they want my job.”

All joking aside, working in higher education was always a dream for Olson. She believes in the power of education and has seen the impact a degree can have not only on the student’s life, but the lives of the student’s family as well. This is especially true at Worcester State University, where most students are first generation college students and degree recipients.

“This is a noble entity. What we do changes lives,” Olson said.

At any given time, Worcester State University’s campus has 7,000 to 8,000 people on its grounds, whether they be students, faculty, staff, or campus visitors. Safety is Olson’s top priority, which takes form in up-to-date building maintenance, snowstorm preparedness, flood prevention during hurricanes, and environmental health and safety reports.

“Facilities is 90% psychological. It is listening and understanding peoples’ needs and turning that into a workable reality,” Olson said.

From her first job to her current position, Olson has always had positions in male-dominated fields. After graduating from college with a degree in electrical engineering with a concentration in power systems, Olson was hired by a power company. She was one of the first two women ever hired by the company to do engineering in the field. During her 17 years in the electrical field, she worked in corporate budgeting, inventory management, and even worked in the office for the president of Mass. Electric Construction Co. She then received her MBA from Clark University. Her idea to enter the world of facilities management occurred when she was retrieving the company car keys from the power company’s facility manager, who suggested that she try a job in his field. After working various other positions, Olson found her home at Worcester State University.

“I am now going on 18 years of being here. I never doubt why I come to work because I just look outside my window and see my students,” she said.

As a former Worcester State graduate herself, Kazarian has seen the campus be beautifully transformed under Olson’s leadership. Throughout the years, Olson has not only supervised the construction of new buildings, but she has repurposed and given older facilities on campus new life. Kazarian said Olson is very deliberate and purposeful in her renovation process and tries to consider the needs of every type of student and anticipate how they would interact with the structure.

“She is really student-centered and student-focused,” Kazarian said.

The aesthetics, functionality, and accessibility of the Worcester State University campus, is pivotal to the student experience and helps the college foster future leaders, said Kazarian, explaining the long-term, positive impact Olson’s work has on the students.

“She never forgets what is important, both on campus and in her personal life,” Kazarian said.

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