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President Nelsen named 2021 Sacramentan of the Year by Metro Chamber of Commerce

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen has been named the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce's 2022 "Sacramentan of the Year" in recognition of his leadership as the University has made significant stride in student success while at the same time making a positive impact on the region. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen’s influence extends far beyond the University’s leafy campus.

Under his leadership, Sac State has measurably enhanced student success and developed programs and policies that are making an impact on the campus community and, importantly, on the Sacramento region and beyond.

For that leadership and its results, the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce named Nelsen the 2021 Sacramentan of the Year. He and other influential community leaders will be honored during a Feb. 11 black-tie event at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sacramento.

“He elevates the role that students play in driving regional success,” said Amanda Blackwood, the chamber’s president and CEO.

“He inspires students to not only study here, but also (to) become a part of our highly skilled workforce; to remain in our region, start their families, and begin businesses of their own. In short, Dr. Nelsen shines a light on the fact that the Sacramento dream can exist for all of us; that in our region, anything is possible.”

Previous Sacramentan of the Year honorees include former Sac State President Donald Gerth, restauranteurs and public policy advocates Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney, former Mayor Kevin Johnson, and businessman and philanthropist Dale Carlsen, who along with his wife, Katy, are namesakes of the Carlsen Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Sac State.

“He inspires students to not only study here, but also (to) become a part of our highly skilled workforce; to remain in our region, start their families, and begin businesses of their own. In short, Dr. Nelsen shines a light on the fact that the Sacramento dream can exist for all of us; that in our region, anything is possible.” - Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Amanda Blackwood

Nelsen, who became Sac State’s eighth president in 2015, is reluctant to take credit for the University’s achievements. He insists that his fellow administrators, faculty, staff, and students all deserve recognition for moving the campus forward, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s all about teamwork,” he said.

Nelsen and his team have made notable strides toward extending Sac State’s reach and influence in the region.

Among the University’s greatest accomplishments, he said, is its drive to help students graduate in a timely manner, lowering their debt and allowing them to enter the workforce and support themselves and their families.

Since Sac State launched its Finish in Four campaign in 2016, the number of students who graduate in four years has jumped from 8.8% to 26%. Supporting that surge, the University has added thousands of high-demand courses necessary for graduation and instituted a strategic scheduling system that helps ensure students take classes they need, when they need them.

“For so long, graduation rates were very low because the expectations were not there,” Nelsen said. “We as a University have raised expectations for our students, because we believe in them. And they are responding.”

Sac State expects to shatter CSU’s goal of 30 percent of its students graduating in four years by 2025.

“But I won’t be satisfied with that,” Nelsen said. “We can do much better.”

Among other priorities, the University is making strides toward becoming a campus that is inclusive and welcoming to all, he said. Its comprehensive Antiracism and Inclusive Campus Plan addresses hiring and retention practices, curriculum development, bias reporting, and many other topics that will guide Sac State in its efforts to become an antiracist institution, Nelsen said. The Feb. 14 Antiracism and Inclusive Convocation, “A CALL TO ACTION: Eradicate, Resolve, and Educate,” is a direct effort to implement the plan.

“We have a diverse population of students who come from so many different backgrounds,” he said. “We want to create a University where they all feel they belong.”

He hopes Sac State’s efforts will have a ripple effect across the region.

Sac State’s Ernest E Tschannen Science Complex, which includes a popular planetarium; recent successes in football and other athletics; and continuing efforts to help students overcome financial barriers are additional points of pride, Nelsen said.

Perhaps Nelsen’s leadership never has been more evident than during the past two years, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the campus to disperse and its community to work and study from home. Staff, faculty and students returned to campus in force on Feb. 7 following a two-week delay in face-to-face classes at the start of the Spring 2022 semester.

“I was alone in this building on many days,” he said from his office, referring to the earlier stages of the pandemic, adding that he received special permission from the CSU chancellor to remain on campus.

The pandemic tested the University in “ways we never could have imagined,” Nelsen said.

Nelsen and members of his COVID-19 team met regularly to discuss strategies for continuing to provide a quality education to students, many of whom needed space, technology, and money to stay in college. The team faced significant obstacles.

“Yes, we had some low points. But I believed in Sac State,” Nelsen said.

That belief apparently extends to students pursuing higher education; Sac State’s enrollment has held steady throughout the past two years.

Nelsen is grateful – and humble – about being named 2021 Sacramentan of the Year.

“You don’t do this job for accolades,” he said. “You lead with your heart. You do it because you love it.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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