Humans of UD: Dr. Richard Olenick

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Photo courtesy of the University of Dallas

Tucked in the physics department in the basement of the University of Dallas Haggerty Science Building lies the office of a beloved astronomy professor: Dr. Richard Olenick. 

Most UD students, regardless of major, are familiar with Olenick, having heard his name affectionately thrown about for the entirety of their time at UD. Simply put, he is a UD icon. 

This is Olenick’s 42nd year of teaching at UD, a remarkable feat that has left an impression on many students. 

Olenick’s astronomy class, which satisfies a physical science Core requirement, fills up quickly every semester. On Rate My Professor, an informal tool used by students to navigate which professors to take, Olenick is consistently rated as one of the most likable and inspirational professors at UD. These reviews show that Olenick is a must-take professor as an undergraduate.

Olenick went to graduate school at Purdue University and found UD through a job fair shortly after he graduated. 

After he was hired by UD, Olenick was a Fulbright Scholar in Russia. He spent a semester teaching computational physics at Moscow State University in 1992, just two weeks after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Olenick has served as the faculty advisor for both the UD rugby team since its founding in 1984 and the Society of St. Joseph (SSJ) since its founding in 2015. He remains in close contact with both organizations. 

Olenick said, “I’ve been very supportive of rugby, I throw Christmas parties for them.”

Olenick’s Christmas plans for SSJ have been foiled due to COVID-19 this past year. “I finally got [SSJ] to have a Christmas party in 2019… I told them yesterday if things really ease up, we can have a get-together and maybe even sing Christmas carols!” 

Olenick was an early proponent for SSJ, helping them to navigate the formation of the club and securing volunteer work for them early on. He received the Faculty Advisor Award for his work with SSJ “I was really like whoa, this is like amazing, you know?”

In 2007, Olenick, who is fluent in Russian, served as a part of the welcoming committee for Mikhail Gorbachev when the former Soviet president visited UD. Olenick has also taken students to Russia for research and is working on a larger study abroad program for UD students in Russia. 

In addition to being a well-loved professor involved in campus life, Olenick possesses a unique ability to synthesize the various disciplines that comprise a liberal arts education. 

Olenick revealed that he has been working on a book which focuses on the dynamic between poetry and physics, exploring the Truth expressed in both subjects. He has collected around 300 poems and explained that the book will essentially combine “the poet’s description and the physicist’s description of things in astronomy.” 

Olenick interprets the poems through his own lens of physics. For example, he mentioned a poem by John Ransom, saying that it “is about two lovers who dance around each other, trying to figure out if they like each other … and I immediately thought ‘That’s a binary star system!’” 

Olenick pointed out that we call college majors “disciplines.” We ourselves become disciplined in those disciplines, and those disciplines form and determine our perception of reality. In this way, his book shows how he encounters poetry from his perspective of physics. 

This insight demonstrates Olenick’s understanding of  Truth within an education: the Truth is interwoven into all realms of knowledge, regardless of discipline. 

Most UD students understand the obvious overlap of themes between history, literature, philosophy and theology classes. As a non-science major, I personally find it more difficult to recognize those themes in the STEM departments. 

My interview with Olenick helped me to see physics as he sees it, as the most philosophic science. Truth is in everything; that is the hallmark of a liberal arts education. 

There is much to say about Dr. Richard Olenick. Both his outlook on Truth and his diverse life experiences lend themselves to a much larger article. For now, I think I can content myself with the simple conclusion that Olenick has certainly earned himself a place as one of the great UD professors, and we are lucky to count him as our faculty.

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