Olsen Scholar Demonstrates Relentless Compassion

April 13, 2018

Karen Therrien was not your typical high school student.

“Her classmates [would] speak of her in awed, hushed tones – not from fear but from authentic respect and admiration,” her guidance counselor wrote in 2016.

And it wasn’t just because she maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average all four years of high school. In fact, what set Karen apart was her genuine goodness and sincere concern for others.

In her sophomore year, Karen spoke with the Cherry Hill High School West guidance office about those students with cognitive or social delays enrolled in vocational and functional programs. She was mystified that none of these students were included in broader social groups. So Karen gave up several periods each week to volunteer as a teacher’s aide in these programs. Aside from providing critical support to the faculty, Karen’s primary goal was to reach out, engage, and really understand the perspectives of these students.

It was a remarkable thing for a high school student to focus on so intently, and so it is no surprise that Karen’s higher education has followed a similar track.

Upon receiving the Paul L. Olsen Memorial scholarship from the Community Foundation of New Jersey in 2016, Karen attended George Mason University in Virginia where she is studying neuroscience.

“I am very interested in researching neurodevelopment disorders such as autism and the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome (PMS),” explained Karen in a recent update to the Community Foundation. “I have been working as an undergraduate assistant in my school’s Neural Engineering Lab over this past year and have really enjoyed this hands-on work. I’ve had the opportunity to study the electrophysiology of mouse spinal cord neurons, as well as work on a project involving neural stem cells in collaboration with a nearby university.”

In addition to this demanding curriculum, Karen is a peer mentor for students on the autism spectrum.

Motivated by a cousin who was recently diagnosed with Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, Karen is going “all in” to understand all aspects of this disorder and potential cures.

In this respect, Karen is the model recipient for the Paul L. Olsen Memorial Scholarship Fund. Having created the fund in 1989 to honor the memory of their son, a Cherry High School graduate and brilliant mathematician, Levi and Barbara Olsen were determined to help students like Karen whose “scholarship, character, personality, and leadership qualities are regarded by the faculty as the most outstanding in their class.”

On behalf of the Olsen family, the Community Foundation of New Jersey is humbled and honored to facilitate this scholarship which is empowering a relentlessly determined young woman.