Meet the Nelsens

This summer, Sac State welcomed its eighth president, Robert S. Nelsen, and his wife, Jody, to the Hornet Nation. We sat down with the Nelsens to talk about the transformative power of higher education, life on a college campus and their plans for their new University family.

NEW HEADS OF THE SAC STATE HOUSEHOLD—President Robert S. Nelsen and Jody Nelsen call Sac State students their “30,000 kids.” Read more about how they met.

Sac State Magazine: You’ve referred to the students at Sac State as your 30,000 kids. What is your personal role in their lives?

President Robert Nelsen: We try to touch as many lives as we possibly can so that we have the ability to provide them with the opportunity for an education, provide them with the opportunity for a career, provide them with the opportunity to mature and become adults. That’s what you do at college. It’s a time when you are transitioning in your life and we want to be here to help them do it.

Jody Nelsen: And I think just by being an example of a caring, compassionate and accessible leader, hopefully they’ll grow to become the same type of leader.

RN: Our mission statement really says everything: ‘As California’s capital university, we transform lives by preparing students for leadership, service and success.’ We’re really trying to live up to that mission.

SSM: What effect does that have on you personally?

RN: I think it’s very personal for me, getting to hear the stories of the students, being available to them so they can talk to me. Using Twitter to reach out to them so that they have a feeling of accessibility and that somebody cares, as Jody says. Universities can be very large and they can be very intimidating. But if we reach out to students it can change their lives, whether it’s a student assistant who you have working in your office or a student you meet in the coffeehouse. Every student we meet, we ask ‘What are you studying?’ ‘When are you going to graduate?’ And (laughing) it better be soon.

SSM: How did you arrive at that philosophy?

RN: It’s the students who really matter. Teaching is a wonderful opportunity. Talk about transforming lives. Faculty are transforming lives every day. You get to know the students’ stories and you get to know them. It becomes very personal. I miss teaching, but I can do more as a president than I can as a faculty member. At least I think I can.

SSM: Jody, you also spent some time in the classroom?

President Nelsen and Herky welcome students during move-in day.

JN: The University of Texas-Pan American business college asked me if I would teach a practicum course to get students working with local businesses and nonprofits. That’s when I found that students really energize me. Whether it’s that kind of formal interaction as a faculty member or being with them at an event or just talking with them. It’s what makes life on a University campus enjoyable.

SSM: At Sac State, many of our students are first in their family to attend college. How do you convince those students’ families that a university education is worth it?

RN: We’ve all heard that statistic about earning a million dollars more over a lifetime, but I don’t think that’s really what a college degree gives you. What it gives you is an accumulation of experience so that you become a different human being. You are a critical thinker. You are a civic leader. You are going to vote. You are going to be involved in your community because you are used to being involved. You are going to be someone who understands other cultures and that’s one of the wonderful things about Sacramento State—its diversity. You will have talked to Caucasians. You will have talked to African Americans. You will have talked to Hmong, to Latinos, to all sorts of people. And you’ll see things from a much broader perspective. An education does more than just equalize people. I think sometimes we say too often that education is the great equalizer. I think it’s the great lifter. Everyone is a better person for having been educated. Not to say you are not a good person for having not been educated. I’m saying you become a better person because of an education.

SSM: But is that enough of a justification for families struggling with losing a source of economic support when a child heads off to college?

     “As California's Capital University,
we transform lives by preparing students
for leadership, service and success. We're
really trying to live up to that mission.”

           —President Robert Nelsen


RN: I think in the United States today, we have a college-going culture—all parents want their children to go to college. But we don’t necessarily have a college-completing culture. There are a lot of students who drop out and we lose them. There are too many students who have to go back and help their parents. We have to provide support for our students. We have to convince their parents that this is the right place for them to be. That’s part of being in the Hornet family: This is where we will nurture your child. This is where we’ll protect them. They will be safe here, and they are going to learn. And when they come back they will be able to help you so much more. I hate to use terms like ‘return on investment’ but you have to show the parents that education is an investment. It is an investment in your child. You love your child, you sacrifice for your child for so many years. This is one more sacrifice.

President Nelsen welcomes a delegation from the Office of the Prime Minister of Japan to campus.

SSM: So it’s not enough to just go to college, you need to complete it.

RN: That’s why we focus on the persistence rate. That’s why I put so much emphasis on graduation rates here at the University. We want their sons and daughters to be successful. We have a moral responsibility to make certain that they are successful.

JN: I think that the more we put out examples of students who look like them graduating and being successful, the more likely parents are going to see that this is worthwhile. They need to see that others have made it—that will encourage parents and the students to say, ‘Maybe I can do it too.’

SSM: Persistence rates and graduation rates seem to be high on your agenda.

RN: Very high. They are my agenda. Student success, that’s Sac State’s agenda.

SSM: The two of you have spent the majority of your professional and personal lives on college campuses. What are the benefits of being part of a university family?

JN: For me it’s the students and the campus life, the events, the arts. I love going to arts events and I have been getting more into the athletics. But it’s just the campus life—it’s so vibrant and exciting. And nowadays you get so much negativity in the world; you’re bombarded by it on the news. Having that positive side of life is really good.

RN: I agree: it’s the students. But it’s also the faculty and the staff. It’s the sense of having a joint purpose. Going to work every day and knowing why you are going to work. Most people in America go to work and they don’t know why they go to work except for a paycheck. For me, it’s not about the paycheck in any way. It’s about the individual lives. It’s about touching people.

SSM: Is it emotional for you?

RN: It is emotional. You think in numbers as a president—number of students, the budget, retention rates—it is numbers. But you also have the opportunity to think in terms of individual people and individual souls. That’s why I walk the campus. I want the students to stop me. That’s why I do the ‘selfies’ because it helps you have that connection with the individuals.

SSM: So, those are the benefits. What are the challenges?

 First-year students join President Nelsen, Jody Nelsen and Herky in giving the “Stingers Up!” 

RN: You’re very visible and anyone feels like they can ask you anything and you have to answer.

JN: It can be all-consuming. You can be at events 24/7, and people want you to be at events 24/7. It’s important to find that balance but not exhaust yourself.

RN: But I want us to be a ‘yes’ university. I want us to be a university that reaches our arms out and says yes to everyone so that they feel at home here—whether they come to a sporting event or just walk across campus. I want that feeling of openness so that they really feel at home.

SSM: Fall semester on a college campus is a bit like a family reunion, with students, faculty and staff all reuniting after a summer away. What are you looking forward to during your first fall semester at Sac State?

JN: I’m excited to go to a lot of the events and learn the Sac State traditions. Traditions make it really fun and exciting and hold people together. So I’m looking forward to finding out about the tradition and culture of the University through a lot of the fall events, not just athletics but all the events that happen in the first of the year.

SSM: Sacramento State graduates tend to stay in the region. Do you have any plans for strengthening ties with the Hornet alumni family?

RN: We’re going to build on what the Alumni Association has to offer. We have a great building, and now it’s named (after Leslie ’55 and Anita Harper), so the more events we can have for the alumni the better. We want them to be at football, at baseball, and we will try to squeeze them into the Nest for basketball (laughs). We want to use sports to bring them back. One of the reasons we need an events center is that we need a distinguished speakers series, so we can invite alumni back here for lectures by famous authors or public figures. We need that type of involvement in getting them back. We need to reach out. We hear it all the time—1 in 20 Sacramento region residents is a Sac State graduate. But do they feel the ‘stickiness’? Well, let’s put our arms around them.

The annual new faculty barbeque gave the Nelsens a chance to meet incoming faculty and their families. 

SSM: This is the second campus where you’ve been a presidential team. How do you approach the job as a couple?

JN: What is our approach as a couple, dear?

RN: I have someone to go home and talk to at night. I am very lucky and blessed, especially because she was a vice president. I’m able to talk to her about any concerns I have. We eat, breathe and sleep the University. I have a companion who understands that. When there’s stress, she understands the stress. She also understands the highs. We’re partners, and we approach this journey as partners.

JN: It was tough giving up my job as a vice president and deciding to retire and be a full-time volunteer. In hindsight, I’m glad I did. I figured you only live once so I wanted to jump in with both feet. I hope the same thing happens here.

Learn more about President Nelsen's personal story.

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