Success Through the Kindness of Others
Robert S. Nelsen, who became Sacramento State's eighth permanent president on July 1, 2015, grew up poor on the Montana cattle ranch that his father bought after saving enough money while working three jobs. His family had horses but could afford only one saddle, so young Robert worked cattle bareback—until a kind family friend showed up with the gift of Calamity Jane's saddle.
That saddle is now the centerpiece of Nelsen's office at Sacramento State—and a symbol of his commitment to students.
"I keep it here for three reasons," Nelsen says. "It breaks the ice when someone comes into the president's office, and I don't want to be (perceived as) as a stodgy president. More importantly, it reminds me of the students and the struggles they have. It's a reminder that we succeed because of the kindness of others, and we have the responsibility to give back."
Nelsen made his first visit to Sacramento State in spring 2015. He and his wife, Jody, fell in love with the campus, and he knew this is where he wanted to be.
"You could say it was because of the trees, but it really wasn't. It was seeing the students and the possibilities, seeing the diversity. This is the seventh-most diverse university in the West. Seeing so many Latino students warmed my heart, because I'm coming from a place that's 89 percent Hispanic," says Nelsen, who is fluent in Spanish (and reads French).
"Seeing the Asian American students. Seeing the African American students. Seeing the Caucasian students. Seeing them mingle together—and knowing what that diversity could do. Diversity makes us stronger, and I see the chance here to create true leaders."
At Sacramento State, Nelsen will work to improve graduation and retention rates, and reduce students' time to degree. "And," he says, "I love our mission statement, which is: 'As California's capital university, we transform lives by preparing students for leadership, service, and success.'"
He and his wife, Jody, are also leading by example and helping to transform lives by designating Sacramento State as a beneficiary of their life insurance plan. "We are proud to be part of Sacramento State's Legacy Circle and hope to establish support for students similar to what we did at UTPA."
UTPA had a high percentage of low-income students, so Nelsen pushed for the creation of a food bank for the students, and he and his wife created an emergency fund in the name of their son, Seth, who took his life.
"We set up an endowment for emergencies—maybe for a car breaking down, not having money for rent, maybe just for food, and I hope we can establish something like that at Sacramento State in my son's name," he says. "Creating an endowment is important so that student support will be there well into the future."
Aiming to 'Transform Lives' as Sac State President
At Sacramento State, Nelsen plans to lead an effort to raise private funds for both a new science building and an events center, as well as raise money to renovate older buildings. The Nelsens plan to host small dinner parties for donors at their home and large fundraisers at the University's Julia Morgan House. They have also committed their own funds through their estate plan to support the students.
"As a university president, you really can transform lives," Nelsen says. "Everything you do makes a difference. I get to help the faculty transform lives. I make it easier for them to do their job, and they do a great job. And every time I look out there and see a student walk by, I know the reason I come to work every day."
He is committed to ensuring that Sacramento State's students graduate with less debt and have jobs waiting when they finish school. He wants them to become lifelong learners and critical thinkers. And he has big dreams for Sacramento State itself:
"This is a great University, but a lot of people don't know that. I think that Made at Sac State is a brilliant campaign, and now we've got to do a lot more branding for the University. That's one of my highest priorities," he says. "It's about making Sacramento State even better than it is."
Make Sac State Better for Future Students