Each day, immigration attorney Terrence Olsen moves mountains for his clients. Whether he’s providing pro bono services to an agency that brings refugees into the country, or removing the international barriers that separate a husband and wife, or helping a foreign entity set up operations in the U.S., he’s simply doing his job. But as he takes phone calls, sends emails and attends meetings, he’s also moving his own mountain.
At the age of 5, Olsen was unable to say a word. An ear infection had damaged his hearing, and he was able to perceive only half of what people were saying. This set up a broken pattern he imitated, and that manifested itself in the form of a devastating stutter.
Olsen underwent intensive therapy as a child and developed his own techniques for speaking. By the time he was 18, he was able to say eight words a minute. He knew he’d have to do better.
“I looked around me and thought, ‘I don’t care how open-minded we are; if I stutter, I will never get a normal job,” Olsen says. As he talks, he brings a hand to his mouth, pinches his fingers together and then moves the hand away, as though he’s pulling out a word he sees in his mind. His hands take turns at the task, stopping only when he changes position or quickly sits back.
“I’ll know when I won’t be able to say a word. I’ll see it in my head, but I won’t be able to say it. Taking a breath, or leaning back with force, will push it out,” Olsen says.
To survive, Olsen made practical decisions. Although a small Ivy League college had accepted his application, a poem he wrote in high school earned him a Brock Scholarship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The Ivy League school was going to be expensive, so he gave UTC the nod and chose English as his major.
“The more words I knew, the more I could choose,” he says.
As an undergraduate, Olsen reached the point where he could go an entire day without stuttering. Verbal communication was still challenging for him, but using the techniques he developed, he was able to lock into a pattern and not have to think about the words he wanted to say. Later, as he worked to earn a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, he taught English to “internationals.” He felt an immediate commiseration with his students.
“Since I had a stutter, I couldn’t actually express what I wanted to, and if you have a language that’s a second language, you have the same issue,” he says.
Olsen’s reasons for going to law school were two-fold: He wanted to help his parents, and he wanted to give a voice to others.
“I had to become another person so I could talk. So, my whole life, I wanted to give individuals a voice. If an individual is separated from himself, how can he communicate with others? I wanted to give a bridge to others like I give myself,” he says.
Olsen earned his law degree at William & Mary in Virginia, took a job with Witt Gaither & Whitaker in Chattanooga, and soon struck out on his own. From the beginning, he’s practiced only immigration law, which he says has been gratifying.
“[My wife and I will] go shopping on a Sunday, and we’ll see three or four clients I’ve helped. I’ll see a child that came here as an adoption five years ago, and we’ll see someone that waited a year-and-a-half to bring in his wife. I can look at those people and say, ‘If it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t be here,’” Olsen says.
Olsen has a thriving practice, in part because his relationships with his clients span several years as they register for school, go to work, get married, obtain their Green Card and become citizens. Those clients then refer him to others.
Success has its price, though. Word about Olsen has spread across the U.S., and as he helps clients as far away as Los Angeles, and stays up late so he can talk with consulates in Southeast Asia, Europe and elsewhere, stress builds.
“I’ll have someone interviewing in Memphis whether or not they’re husband and wife, and then I’ll have someone at a consulate who’s just invested a million dollars, and they’re deciding whether or not they’re going to let them in, and then I’ll have something that we just filed for someone that’s about to get denied, and that’s got to be decided – and that will be a normal day. The stress level is incredible,” he says.
To relieve stress, Olsen jokes that he piles on more stress.
Although Olsen is kidding, one has to wonder where he finds the time to deal with everything on his plate, especially when factoring in his pro bono work. For example, he created a program at William & Mary through which a student can spend the summer at his firm and assists organizations such as La Paz and Bridge Refugee Services, both of which help internationals. Together, he and a student wrote a comprehensive immigration questionnaire that gives the two agencies guidance when taking care of foreigners who are coming to the U.S.
“Bridge Refugee Services doesn’t have a lot of resources, so I wanted to help them out,” he says.
This summer, Olsen is planning to bring on an associate that will do pro bono work. If that goes well, he hopes he’ll be able to hire the person to help Legal Aid of East Tennessee with immigration issues. Olsen is even in the process of moving into the same building on Chestnut Street in which Legal Aid of East Tennessee is located. The move is intended to give him more room than his current accommodations.
In June, Olsen will begin a series of free bi-monthly immigration seminars for CEOs, human resources executives and other professionals. “With VW and other international entities being here, we have a culture that’s very different from what we once had. We need to learn how to talk about immigration,” he says.
As busy as Olsen is, one thing can still pull him away from work: family. Olsen is married to a Taiwan native who came to the U.S. to attend Dalton State College. They met in 2002, and today, they’re the parents of a 10-month-old daughter. The only language they speak in their home is Mandarin.
“My Chinese is getting better. I speak like a teenager. The only time we speak English is when it’s a complicated matter,” he says.
Olsen calls fatherhood “amazing,” and says his daughter makes him “happy.” He even leaves work earlier than he used to so he can spend time with her before she goes to bed. Once she’s tucked in, he opens his laptop and begins working again. “I don’t sleep,” he says, making another joke.
Although Olsen doesn’t have time to relax, he did kick box before his daughter was born. “I like to hit a bag for an hour-and-a-half. It’s a good way to get stress out,” he says.
As Olsen eyes the middle age spread expanding his midsection, he says he’s looking forward to moving to Chestnut Street because he’ll have easy access to the YMCA, which will be next door. “I’ve got to be here for the baby,” he says.
In addition to being a hard-working attorney and a family man, Olsen is a published poet. When he writes, words come easily to him, and he’s able to compose complex, graceful prose. In those quiet moments, there are no barriers of expression, save the limits of his imagination.
There is perhaps no one more inspiring to someone who’s facing a great challenge than a person who’s overcome incredible odds. In this sense, Olsen has turned what many people would consider to be a debilitating condition into a source of inspiration for his clients. Talking with him is a unique experience, as he tends to redirect a conversation to include words he can say. But no matter where Olsen takes the discourse, one thing is always clear: When he speaks, he moves mountains.