RPHARM director sees career from student’s perspective

Heidi Olson

ROCKFORD, Ill. — When a prospective pharmacy student tells Dr. Heidi Olson that they’ve never thought about pharmacy as a career before, the director of the RPHARM program at the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy doesn’t take it personally. She’s been there herself.

“When I started in pharmacy school, even when I was applying for pharmacy school, I didn’t really know what a pharmacist did,” she said.

Olson has been the director of the RPHARM program since 2013, starting at the U of I College of Pharmacy in 2012. The program itself started in 2010 and the first RPHARM class graduated in 2014.

“I have been with the program long enough to have seen every one of our graduating classes, from the first graduating RPHARM class to the current one,” Olson said.

She attended pharmacy school at Midwestern University in Downers Grove.

“This predates when we had the Rockford campus. If we had this campus, that’s where I would have chosen because I did not want to go the suburbs,” she said.

Before she applied to pharmacy school, Olson was in the same position as many of the high school and college students she meets while recruiting for the U of I’s Rockford pharmacy program and the RPHARM program, in particular.

“I knew that I wanted a job where I would be helping people. I wanted something with math and science. In health care, I knew I would be able to get a job anywhere and that I would be comfortable as far as income was concerned,” she said.

Olson decided against medical school and nursing. Pharmacy was an option and she decided that it ticked all of her boxes.

“I was very much like, ‘I’m just going to take this leap and I like math and science, so I should be OK,’” she said.

Olson’s leap into the unknown was successful. She did a residency with the Veterans Administration in Milwaukee and then went to work after graduation for the VA in Danville, where she worked as a clinical pharmacist, then a hospital pharmacist.

She continues to work as a practicing community pharmacist, along with heading up the RPHARM program.

“My practice site is at a senior center in Belvidere. Older adults in the area can make appointments and can come in and talk to me about questions they have that are health related,” she said.

Olson said she sees her own experience with students that she introduces to the RPHARM program.

“Looking back, I think that it is kind of crazy that is all I knew going into it, but it worked out for me. Talking to our current students who are first year and second year, they really don’t know what pharmacists do either, beyond community pharmacy,” she said.

“As soon as they get into pharmacy school, they start learning about all the different types of pharmacy they can do.”

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor