The University of Oklahoma wasn’t on Amy Oliver’s radar when she began researching possible graduate schools. Neither was a . How she ended up graduating in August 2013 with a MAMS from OU Extended Campus when she originally set out to get a Master’s of Business Administration turned out to be a decision that gave her life purpose and fulfilled a childhood dream.
Oliver earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette in June 2006. Although she developed an interest in museums as a teenager, she didn’t immediately follow that career path.
An early love for museums
“When I was a teenager, I had a profound love of history and several times was selected to represent Utah in the National History Day competition in Washington, D.C. My mom always made sure that I went, even though we couldn’t really afford it,” Oliver said. “She helped me to apply for scholarships and ask for donations. Even when I came up short, she always found a way to make it happen.”
For years, prior to each competition, Oliver’s mom drove her hundreds of miles to university libraries and museums so she could research her heart out.
“When we went to D.C., my mom saw how crazy in love I was with the museums, and she made a point of taking me to every single one that we could possibly get to,” Oliver said. “Before I was even in high school, I knew that I was going to work in a museum someday, and not just any museum, but the Smithsonian.”
“I could not have taken this role, nor would I have been offered this role, without the foundation provided to me by my master of museum studies degree. I learned things, and acquired textbooks, that I will carry with me for the rest of my career.”
Oliver said life took some twists and turns, and as a communications professional she ended up volunteering at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 2012. That’s when she began researching MBA programs. Since she was planning to pay for her degree out of pocket each semester, she was looking for graduate schools with online programs that would allow her to keep her full-time job.
“I was gearing up to get my MBA in marketing,” Oliver said. “I hadn’t yet finalized my registration for that program when my mom, always noticing those critical things about her children, said, ‘What about that degree in museum studies at OU? Maybe that’s a good idea, too.’”
Set up for student success
At OU Extended Campus, Oliver was able to complete her MAMS almost entirely online. Because of OU Extended Campus’ student-centered focus, Oliver was able to work full time and run a business while completing her degree.
“What surprised me most about the program was that this was even possible,” Oliver said. “It wasn’t just a stick-to-it attitude, which I definitely had, but it was also about the school, the professors and the way the program was set up. OU Extended Campus is set up for student success. You have every opportunity to succeed and get the assistance you need to make it to graduation happy, healthy and ready to latch on to a great career, or boost the one you’ve already got.”
While OU Extended Campus gave Oliver the tools she needed to succeed, she also put in the work. She finished with a 4.0 grade point average, and received scholarships along the way.
“I worked very hard, and several of my old professors could have attested to the times they would see me logged in late at night and for 14-16 hours on a Saturday and Sunday, working my hardest to ensure that I understood everything I was being taught,” she said. “I never missed an opportunity to answer board questions, even when they weren’t required, and I never missed an opportunity to interact with my fellow students.”
Oliver remembers one particular class at OU making an immediate impact. She was taking a course on Native American/American Indian representation in museums while working in a museum that needed help with collections registration and cataloging.
“I didn’t understand NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) before this course, but it really helped me to identify potential issues in the collection at my museum while I was cataloging, and it set me up for success in making recommendations and recording accurate histories and provenance so that the board of directors could make important decisions,” she said.
While working on her graduate degree, she also worked for the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts’ Division of State History. There, she was instrumental in saving the National History Day program – the program that had meant so much to her growing up – after it was dropped from its patron group’s budget. She and others worked with the legislature to write a bill that made the program a permanent part of the state’s budget.
“I still look back very fondly on being a part of the team that saved the National History Day program in Utah,” she said. “That program changes the lives of children, and it’s a critical component of education.”
The right choice pays off
Throughout her first year at OU, Oliver wondered if she’d made the right decision choosing the MAMS over an MBA. Now, she’s more than sure she made the right choice. She took a job at Clark Planetarium, where she learned her love of space science and science in general was important to her.
“I learned that what I need most is purpose, and museums give that to me. Even in my current job, I find a small project and when I make it happen and I see that people find good in it, that gives me purpose. Small museums always give you a chance to create purpose in a way, and that’s good for me.”
Today, Oliver works where she always knew she’d end up one day – the . She’s the public affairs officer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. The center is a full-fledged research center that focuses on gamma-ray research and extragalactic and exoplanetary research. Oliver manages the visitor and science center, as well as educational programming, marketing, social media, volunteer programs and anything else that faces the public.
“Here I am, exactly where I knew I was going to end up since I was a teenager – the Smithsonian Institution,” she said. “I had no idea there was a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Amado, Arizona. I didn’t even know Amado, Arizona, was a place. I had always thought my path to the Smithsonian was going to be through curation or collections management, but I find myself now in a completely different type of role, and it’s a really wonderful thing.
“I could not have taken this role, nor would I have been offered this role, without the foundation provided to me by my master of museum studies degree,” she added. “I learned things, and acquired textbooks, that I will carry with me for the rest of my career.”
Oliver said she hopes to one day be the director of the .
“For the next while, though,” she said, “I’m pretty happy managing the Whipple Visitor and Science Center and helping to transform it into an interactive analog environment that encourages people to engage with and get excited about space science, astrophysics and the science around us.”
*© Photography by Danielle Follett