Dr. Xena Olsen

Class of 2022

Dr. Xena Olsen

D.Sc. in Cybersecurity

Tell us about your background.

Everyone has a unique path. I’m a first-generation Mexican-American and the first one in my family to earn a doctorate. My story starts in the U.S. in the early 70’s, when my mom, aunt and grandmother all faced deportation back to Mexico. The fear was palpable, as a single mother of two children navigated U.S. immigration law. It was at this moment that an unlikely advocate stepped up. A U.S. Senator sponsored a bill that secured my family’s right to stay in the U.S. Fast forward five years, and my mom was granted U.S. citizenship. Shortly after, she met my dad.

How did you start pursuing cybersecurity as a career?

I was living an entrepreneur’s life with its many ups and downs. While I enjoyed the creative freedom of running my own business, I felt like something was missing. So, one fortuitous evening, I applied to the SANS Women’s Academy. Fast forward a couple of months, and I was awarded a scholarship to complete three SANS training courses, corresponding GIAC certifications and receive mentorship from industry practitioners. SANS’ sponsorship and the people who used their clout to help me land my first cybersecurity job made a career in cybersecurity a possibility and a reality.

What was your time in Marymount’s doctorate program like?

I had a dream of becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to medical school. Despite the disappointment, my dream was still alive. In 2019, I applied and was accepted to pursue a cybersecurity doctorate at Marymount University. Dr. Donna Schaeffer, my Dissertation Chair, shared her knowledge and experience as I navigated the doctoral program. She was a fierce advocate and instrumental in me procuring an ESET Women in Cybersecurity Scholarship in 2021, which paid for the materials to complete my dissertation research. She used her power and influence to ensure I finished the doctoral program. My dissertation committee — Dr. Andrew Hall, Dr. Alex Mbaziira, Dr. Hicks and Dr. Zadig — went above and beyond providing support, guidance and advice. Throughout my educational journey, even my employers supported my academic pursuits. They not only provided tuition reimbursement but also arranged weeks of uninterrupted time, on multiple occasions, to work on my dissertation.

Why are advocacy and sponsorship so important to you?

My story is one of sponsorship, advocacy and the vital role they play in marginalized communities. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for people and organizations taking a chance on me. They helped navigate landmines and other potential pitfalls. Advocates and sponsors made the impossible possible. I won’t get a chance to personally thank and share the impact of the U.S. Senator on my life as he passed in 1998, but what I can do is be that for others. Thank you to all those that make the impossible possible.