Crossing Paths, Crossing Stories

Dr. Mary Nelson
Dr. Mary Nelson, Director, Ph.D. in Leadership Studies Program, Cook School of Leadership

"I've seen a mirror reflecting back at me."

For every anxious or drifting student who walks into Dr. Mary Nelson's office, ready to withdraw from their programs at any moment's notice, she sees it: an image her younger self knew all too well.

A two-time recipient of the Piper Outstanding Professor of the Year, she currently serves as the director of DBU's Ph.D. in Leadership Studies program in the Gary Cook School of Leadership, and a professor in Leadership and English. She works with students from undergrad to doctorate level, from freshmen to 50-year-olds. Someone looking at her thriving work now from the outside might not guess that at one time, Dr. Nelson faced uncertainty over her life's direction and anxiety over the future. The temptation to give up in the narrow lens of the present was all too familiar to her.

"I was always really hard on myself. Many times, in this office, I'll hear myself telling students ‘Don't be so hard on yourself.' I keep learning that from them," Dr. Nelson says. "I deal with doctoral students who put a lot of pressure on themselves. I have to remind them that God has put them into the program, and He wants to see them flourish—but not to the detriment of their health, so I try to remember how people have encouraged and invested in me." She sees it as her way of "paying it forward," following her own experience.

Dr. Nelson grew up a "preacher's kid" in Waco, and it was her father who baptized her. Faith was the pivotal center of her life, around which family and church were interconnected.

She attended Baylor University as a theater major in what would be the first stop on an unexpected road to ultimately discover her calling.

"Right out of college, I thought I wanted to be an actress and do theatre," Dr. Nelson recalls. "Yet as I pursued it — it's such a hard field! — I felt like I was missing something. I felt God calling me back to the classroom."

After graduating from Baylor, Dr. Nelson went on to attend SMU for her master's degree in English, and then Rice University for her Ph.D. in English.

When Dr. Nelson finally set out to get back into the classroom, she had a family friend and connection who had long-seen potential in her to be a professor: Dr. Gary Cook. Later, Dr. Cook requested that she co-teach a class with Dr. Wright, which opened another unexpected trajectory for Dr. Nelson.

"I never expected to teach in the Ph.D. program until then," Dr. Nelson said. "It's funny how the Lord works. My love of English, theater and leadership really came together."

Also supporting Dr. Nelson with encouragement for the first of her next 15 years working at DBU was Dr. Gail Linam.

"After having struggled with my calling, that support was so formative for me," Dr. Nelson said. "It's so great to have people you respect invest in you. I've tried to do that for my students. I try to remember how people have encouraged and invested in me — like Dr. Linam and Dr. Cook — and how they encouraged me."

Dr. Nelson makes a point to give weary and discouraged students, who may think they can't go on any longer academically, a broader view: of life as it is now, and of what life may look like later as God continues working and revealing His plans.

"I never want to try telling someone God's will for them; only they know that," Dr. Nelson says. "But I want them to know they have academic potential. One bad grade on one assignment is not worth throwing away that entire direction. It's so easy to lose perspective when you've worked so hard on something, and you don't get the grade you want. I try to give a broader perspective, because that's what people did for me."

Dr. Nelson quotes her favorite passage of scripture, Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."

From that truth, which Dr. Nelson has learned through her life to hold to and remember herself, she works to give it to her students in whom she sees her mirror reflection.

"Give yourself time to hear God's calling for you," Dr Nelson says, as much to herself as to the students she serves. "What you need to do is do your best in whatever opportunities God allows you. You never know how God is going to use those. I wouldn't have known I'd be teaching in leadership, yet things came together and it's such a great blessing. It's easy to get anxious about what you're doing next, but the Lord does have plans for you."

Written by Jordan Jarrett

Jordan Jarrett is a member of University Communications at Dallas Baptist University.