Robert S. Nelsen leaves a legacy as a skilled president and a caring presence
June 14, 2023
At a recent women's basketball game during the spring semester inside the gym known as The Nest, President Robert S. Nelsen sat front and center, one of a few hundred people cheering on the Hornets.
It was not a cameo appearance. Nelsen stayed from the opening tip until the closing horn, as he does at nearly every home athletic event, from gymnastics to softball to volleyball to football. He is a constant presence where students compete, perform, achieve, debate, dissent, and otherwise work out details of their educational and personal paths.
"Because they deserve for me to be there," Nelsen said during an interview in his office, a space decorated with photos and other memorabilia of current and former students.
"Our students give me a reason to get up every morning," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "They give me a sense of purpose. They give me fulfillment."
Nelsen's reflections come as he approaches the end of what will be an eight-year tenure leading Sacramento State, a run that began July 1, 2015, and will finish with his retirement in July. From his first day, he formed a bond with the University and the Sacramento region, but especially with students.
An earlier tragedy that befell Nelsen and his wife, Jody – the suicide of their only child, Seth, in 2001 – contributed to his extraordinary devotion.
"I lost Seth, but now I have 31,000 kids," Nelsen said. He demonstrates it practically every day, publicly and in private interactions.
"Our students give me a reason to get up every morning. They give me a sense of purpose. They give me fulfillment." -- President Robert S. Nelsen
As Nelsen, 71, prepares to retire, he can point to many successes, such as rising graduation rates, record fundraising, completed construction projects, initiatives to combat racism and boost access and inclusion, and successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps most visible and important, though, is his legacy of remarkable devotion to Sac State's students, especially those who have overcome significant obstacles.
From a shelf behind his desk, Nelsen grabbed a painting of a child's colorful scribbles, a gift from the daughter of a formerly homeless student whom he helped mentor.
"Her life was not easy, obviously," he said. "But she came to work here in the office, and she was able to graduate. I'm so proud of her."
He pointed to a photo of Tammy Marie Linn, who overcame a criminal background and a stint in prison to earn a degree in psychology at age 42. Nelsen was one of her biggest champions, helping her secure a full pardon from then-Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2018, and later hosting a reception in her honor.
"She is an exceptional person," Nelsen said.
He laughed about the day he and former student body President Patrick Dorsey took pies in the face in the name of charity, and about the volleyball player who "convinced me to give her $1,000 for a cake" in an auction to benefit the baseball team.
He admiringly recalled the many undocumented students – "Dreamers" – who earned their degrees despite fears of deportation.
"All of these students worked so hard, and they all cared about the University," he said. "You get to know them, and really care about them."
Nelsen stays in touch with many students long after they graduate, celebrating their professional accomplishments and personal milestones.
"When they get a job, I feel like I got one too," he said. "When they get married or have a baby, I get to live that joy all over again."
Former student body President Samantha Elizalde, now in Sac State's renowned Capital Fellows program, said she was honored to work alongside Nelsen.
"Throughout my time in student government, he always made space for students," Elizalde said. "Especially during difficult and unprecedented times, he made sure to have students involved in decision-making so that our voices were being heard."
Nayeli Chaidez earned two degrees from Sac State and now works for Sacramento City College's Hispanic Serving Institution Early College Program. She said Nelsen was more "like family" than an administrator or a boss.
Chaidez worked as a student assistant in the President's Office for several years while dealing with the stress and anxiety of being an undocumented immigrant. Nelsen offered her help and reassurance, and became close to her daughter Shania, who once sat upon the saddle displayed prominently in Nelsen's office.
The saddle belonged to American West icon Martha Jane Cannary, aka "Calamity Jane." Nelsen received it as a gift from a family friend while growing up on his father's struggling Montana cattle ranch, and keeps it close by, in part, to remind him of struggles students face. It's also an effective icebreaker with visitors to his office.
"He was like family to me," Chaidez said. "He planted the seeds for me to do more with my life and go further. He had a huge impact."
"Throughout my time in student government, he always made space for students. Especially during difficult and unprecedented times, he made sure to have students involved in decision-making so that our voices were being heard." -- President Samantha Elizalde, former student body president
Maanvee Mehrotra, an international student from India who will graduate this spring, said Nelsen evokes similar feelings in her.
"I have had so many experiences where he saw me; he supported me," said Mehrotra, who also worked as a student assistant to Nelsen. When COVID-19 caused widespread campus shutdowns and a pivot to mostly online classes in March 2020, Nelsen cried with her, then helped calm her fears. When the Trump administration that year threatened to deport international students if they took all of their classes online, Nelsen committed the University to fight for her. Under widespread academic and business pressure, Trump later that year abandoned the deportation plan.
"I don't have family here," she said, which is why she once asked Nelsen to be her plus-one at a campus awards ceremony, an invitation he enthusiastically accepted.
"I'm in denial about his retirement," Mehrotra said. "I don't want to imagine Sac State without President Nelsen."
Nelsen said he is retiring reluctantly.
"When I came here, I promised Jody no more than five years," he said. "She gave me three 'contract extensions.' When I asked her for a fourth, she said no," arguing that they needed to retire to their home in Texas and enjoy more quality time together.
"I'm 71 years old. I would have loved to stay here until 80," Nelsen said. "But I listen to Jody, and I always will."
Shannon Swanson, a Sac State graduate who is a policy specialist for the Cal State Student Association, said one of Nelsen's greatest strengths is "shining a light on students and leading with his heart."
Swanson also worked as an assistant in Nelsen's office, and said he demonstrated "how to be a steadfast and compassionate leader" in the face of students' personal tragedies, and disruptions such as natural disasters and the pandemic.
"I attribute much of my success to his unwavering support of me as a student," Swanson said.
Upon retirement, Nelsen plans to work with nonprofit groups that serve migrants in the Rio Grande Valley and advocate for immigration reform, an endeavor in keeping with his high-profile support of undocumented students, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and increased access for underrepresented and underserved students.
He has no plans to travel the world or relax on beaches.
"I won't be golfing," he said, smiling at the thought. "I golfed once in my life, in 1968, and everything went to the left." Jody, who has moved back to Texas with the couple's three cats, volunteers at a food pantry and at the South Texas Ecotourism Center.
Ellis Thomas, a Sac State senior and current student assistant, said Nelsen's most apparent characteristic is his love for the University.
"Working for him has made me fall in love with Sac State, too," Thomas said. "He goes at 100 mph every day. I've never seen anyone work so hard. He is a leader who truly loves his job."
As his career winds down, Nelsen anticipates presiding over his final Commencement in May. The ceremonies have served graduates in increasing numbers since Nelsen's arrival, and he considers them the most important event for students.
In July, he will complete his tenure as the University hosts the Homeless World Cup, a multiday event that brings attention to a worldwide problem that has critical implications in the Sacramento region. Nelsen made securing the soccer competition one of his most high-profile final initiatives.
The event will bring formerly homeless players from dozens of countries to campus for a series of matches in a setting meant to bring new thinking about homelessness and engender greater empathy and compassion toward people affected by it.
"I am proud that we will host the Homeless World Cup in 2023, and I look forward to welcoming athletes from around the world to the Sacramento State campus," Nelsen said. "This event will reimagine the conversations surrounding the global issue of homelessness while transforming the lives of the athletes as well as the spectators."
Reflecting upon his time as Sac State's leader, Nelsen is thinking about his most treasured moments as president, including his regular appearances at new-student orientations.
"It's something that I absolutely love, because I get to say to all of these parents, 'They're not yours anymore. They're mine,'" he said. "And I mean it when I say it."
That kind of love and commitment comes with poignant consequences, especially for a man who usually has been first to arrive each day to his office in Sacramento Hall and among the last to leave after an evening event or performance.
"When I close that door for the last time," he said, his voice breaking with emotion, "it's going to be really hard.
"But my heart will always be at Sac State."