At Pima, Iryna Olson finds a new world of educational opportunity
Dreams sometimes come with obstacles.
After coming to Tucson from Ukraine in December 2013, Iryna Olson turned to Pima Community College to help her overcome the obstacles to her dream career as an architect.
Having completed English and pre-admission courses at Pima and getting the College’s help in transferring university credits from Ukraine, she now is pursuing a degree in architecture at The University of Arizona.
“Pima provided her with an academic foundation and definitely prepared her for success,” said her husband, Sven Olson.
In 2010, the Arizona Army National Guard assigned Sven to the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine’s bustling capital with close to three million people. He and Iryna met in 2011, and married a year later.
Iryna, who has a master’s degree in economics and accounting from a state university in Ukraine, owned and managed a five-person business that provided accounting and financial management services to legal firms. A woman-owned business is unusual in Ukraine, she said.
“It was an interesting job, but it wasn’t my dream job,” she said.
When Sven’s tour of duty ended in 2013, the Olsons headed for Tucson, where Sven has family. As luck would have it, they departed the very same day the violence began in the ongoing battle between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists. Iryna worries to this day about her parents and their peers and friends still in Ukraine.
“When we came to Tucson, Sven asked me, ‘Do you have a dream job? Do you want to change careers?’” she said. “I thought about it for three or four days. I asked myself, ‘What can bring me joy?’ And then I told him, ‘I want to be an architect.’”
The couple owns land in a beautiful forested area outside Kiev where they someday want to build a retirement home. Iryna already has a blueprint in mind for the home’s design.
Before she could even pursue her dream, Iryna had several obstacles to overcome. For example, UA requires that a student successfully pass an exam showing proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and listening in English.
Sven and Iryna Olson
Although she understood and spoke some English, “the biggest problem was that I didn’t know (English) grammar and spelling,” she said. She is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian.
She first enrolled in Pima’s Adult Education to improve her English skills. She tested well and was promoted to an advanced class.
In March 2014, she took the proficiency test known as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). She earned a score of 69; 70 is the minimum passing grade.
Undeterred, she enrolled in English, reading and writing classes at PCC for one term, starting in August 2014.
“That’s when I read my very first book in English, called ‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.’ I was proud of myself,” she said.
To be admitted to UA, she also had to complete pre-college algebra. One might think that would be easy for someone with expertise in accounting, but it required a lot of effort to relearn the math while studying in English.
To familiarize herself with technical engineering terms in English, she enrolled in a PCC engineering class, which she believed most closely corresponded with her interest in architecture.
Meanwhile, PCC advisers helped evaluate and transfer her Ukraine university credits to align with UA requirements.
In November 2014, she passed the TOEFL and was accepted by UA.
Over the summer, Iryna returned to PCC for a physics class, while taking three more classes at UA to bring her up to speed with her classmates, who were starting the second year of a five-year program.
Although she worries about the continuing conflict in her homeland, school has been a big plus for her to focus on. And she is thankful that Pima helped her find her way.
Her advice to others seeking to make a big change? “All people should dream.You never know where it will lead.”
- Jodi Goalstone