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Women in Engineering: Carolyn Hardy Olsen, Class of 1963

November 20, 2012

“Take the risk… wonderment is irreplaceable.  Live in the present, and make the most out of every opportunity and the people that you meet.” Carolyn Hardy Olsen

Carolyn Hardy Olsen was raised in Cheyenne, WY where she attended St. Mary’s Catholic School.  She would go on to graduate as the only female in her class in 1963 with a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of Wyoming.  During this time she was able to study under historical CEAS professors including H.T. Person, Robert Chaplain, and Don Lamb. 

After graduation, Carolyn was offered a position with the City of Los Angeles as an Engineer Assistant.  Over the next three years she would gain valuable experience working on various projects ranging from systems of streets, sewers, and storm drains.  While there she obtained registration as a California Professional Engineer.     

In 1967 she was married and moved with her husband to Monrovia, Liberia, Africa for three years.  He was part of the World Health Organization’s Smallpox Eradication Program.  Carolyn taught math to 7th thru 12th graders at the American Cooperative School.  She had the opportunity to interact with numerous international dignitaries and travel throughout Europe.  These experiences opened up her view of the world.  For the next 25 years Carolyn followed her husband’s career with the Center for Disease Control.  This allowed her to have many interesting employment opportunities. 

In the 70’s Carolyn relocated back to California where she was placed in charge of five small sanitation districts in the San Francisco Bay area.  This was a pivotal turning point in her career as it focused her energy on environmental and sanitary engineering.  When her husband was transferred to Illinois, she worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in Springfield, IL and completed her masters degree in Environmental Engineering from Southern Illinois University.  For the next two years she traveled to villages with her husband as part of the Smallpox Eradication Program in India. 

In 1983 Carolyn moved to Atlanta, GA.  After a series of public works positions, she was appointed to Mayor Andrew Young’s cabinet as Commissioner of Water and Pollution Control.  For six years she was in charge of an annual operating budget of $150 million and oversight of 1200 employees.  The annual construction budget was $100 million.  Additionally, she established a literacy program, an electrical apprenticeship program and additional programs to aid in the professional development of these employees.

After working for the city, she worked for Brown and Caldwell Engineers for 5 years as the Vice President in charge of water, while also acting as the face of the company providing project reviews and marketing activities.

Carolyn then relocated to the City of San Francisco as the Assistant General Manager of the Public Utilities Commission.  In this position she was in charge of water, wastewater and electrical systems operations.  This was during the transition of Y2K related projects that included the development of the backup emergency system that is still in use today.   

During her professional career Carolyn has served on numerous executive boards, always being the first or second woman to have served on them including the National Academy of Science, American Water Works Association, Association for Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, Association for Metropolitan Water Agencies, National Drinking Water Advisory Council (EPA), and the Water Environment Federation.  She has also served on the board of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and as president for Water for People. 

Carolyn is currently retired and lives with her husband in Bend, OR.  They regularly travel the world visiting destinations on a whim.  She is continually marveled at the impact that globalization has had on each of these areas she has frequented throughout varying stages of her personal career and life.  Most recently they returned from three months in Paris, France.  Flights are already booked for their excursion to Portugal next year. 

Throughout Carolyn’s prolific career she has learned that it is more important to focus on the work that is needed to be done, not the work that is going to look good on a resume.  Action is what gets the tasks completed.  When asked what she would most like to pass on to current and future engineers, she answered:

 “You never know who you are going to meet or where life will take you, don’t be afraid to take risks and to ask questions:  Learn to think logically and read technically.”

Photo: Mayor Andrew Young and Carolyn Hardy Olsen, 1983


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