At the kitchen table of her Henderson home, Olga Elliott puts down a “Z,” wraps up the word “razz,” and finishes me off. Triple word score. I can now add one more item to the evening’s list of lessons learned.
- If you really want to learn, try teaching.
- In the republic of letters, you’re never far from home.
- Never challenge a fluent foreigner at Scrabble.
Elliott, it’s safe to say, is the only Las Vegan teaching both the fine art of apartment management and the political philosophy of Montesquieu. As regional director of education and marketing for ConAm Management, she trains the management and staff for more than 8,000 apartment homes in the Southwest. As an adjunct professor of political science at UNLV, she trains Nevada’s future leaders, or at least Nevada’s future Nevadans.
Elliott was born and raised in Moscow, where she attended the prestigious Moscow State Pedagogical University. In 1994, a year after completing a graduate program in American studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., she moved to Las Vegas with her future husband, Mark, a graphic designer. (Mark, who grew up in the southwest of England, has the knowledge base of an Oxford don and can make a home-improvement project sound like Wordsworth. Olga generally beats him at Scrabble, too.) Soon after her arrival, Elliott found work as a leasing agent at Oasis Residential. Over the years, as she has climbed the property-management ladder, she’s seen everything from a vacated apartment filled wall to wall with dead bouquets —“It looked like a cemetery,” she says—to abandoned exotic pets. “The way people leave their apartments,” Elliott says, “sometimes tells you a lot about human nature.”
She’s learned some good things about humanity, too. She has consoled weeping residents. She has been the first person they tell about marriage proposals, births, journeys. She found a way to make apartment-dwellers in a transient town feel like the leasing office is the family living room. “It’s one of those businesses where you see the full extent of elation, happiness and tragedy as well,” she says. “You become a psychologist and a philosopher.”
In 2000, Elliott completed her master’s degree in political science at UNLV, and she has been teaching there since 2005. “I’ve had this insatiable thirst for knowledge since childhood,” she says. “Everyone in my family was highly educated—teachers, professors, authors. It was in my blood. Once you start learning, you can’t stop. That’s why this Scrabble thing is such a passion, where I’m constantly learning new words. If I don’t, I feel like I’m stagnating.”