Dr. Marcus Nelson ('94) | 2013 Young Alumnus of the Year

Marcus Nelson’s improbable journey to ACU began on a “joy bus.”

That was the name given to the white school bus sent by MacArthur Park Church of Christ into the low-income neighborhoods of northeast San Antonio. It would pick up churchgoers on Sundays and Wednesdays, and Nelson’s mother made sure he was on the bus every time it came.

“We were extremely poor,” Nelson said. “Government cheese, having to stay home alone with my brother, cook dinner with my brother. My mother had to work two shifts to put me and my little brother through college.”

That first-hand experience with poverty animates Nelson (’94) as he works with children from one of Texas’ largest – and poorest – school districts. Since 2009, he has been superintendent of the 25,000-student Laredo Independent School District, where the poverty rate is three times higher than the Texas average and median household incomes are two times lower.

Nelson came to ACU as a youth and family ministry major. A high school football star, Nelson’s promising college career ended before he could even go, thanks to a knee injury. His connection with MacArthur Park allowed him to meet ACU mainstay recruiter Bob Gomez, who offered him a scholarship to help him and his mother afford the tuition.

While most other students came with parents and a moving truck, Nelson came with the map of Texas he used to find the way to Abilene.

“I had a map, and I left for ACU,” he said. “ When I got there, the university just welcomed me. Bob Gomez and a couple of other people made sure I was successful. He told my mother he’d make sure I was taken care of.”

Among the students who befriended Nelson was a senior who was president of the Galaxy social club – Phil Schubert, now ACU’s president.

“He was definitely one of the people I looked up to when I got there,” Nelson said. “He reached out to me. As a sophomore, I pledged Galaxy because of Phil Schubert.”

Nelson had a passion for leadership, one that crystallized on a Spring Break Campaign to Michigan, where he worked in some local schools. “Next thing you know,” he said, “I didn’t want to be a youth minister. I wanted to be a principal.”

After graduating in 1994, Nelson took what he calls “the hard road” to being superintendent. He has taught elementary and high school, been a middle school vice principal and high school principal, earning master’s and doctoral degrees along the way. He was second-in-command of the Judson ISD near San Antonio before being appointed superintendent in Laredo, which sits on the Rio Grande in deep South Texas.

An incredible 97 percent of students in the school district are economically disadvantaged. The median family income of about $24,000 in the district is just half of the Texas average, and nearly 44 percent of the school district’s population lives below the poverty line – ranking it No. 1 in Texas.

“I try to be a breath of fresh air and provide hope and change where I’m working,” he said. “If you view your work as a ministry, you’re never really working.”

Nelson’s background has led him to work in districts with high levels of poverty and that has made his job harder.

“It’s been rewarding; you see the fruits of your labor at graduation,” he said. I’ve had to bury a student who was killed at lunch, I’ve had to break up gang activity. It was a lot of tough times.”

Now the tough times are different, as Nelson handles the duties of superintendent: Expanding enrollments and decreased state funding, juggling the needs of faculty and staff with the priorities of a school board, staying personally involved with the tens of thousands of students and employees under his supervision.

Without question, I miss the daily interaction with students,” said Nelson. “I still try to find time to visit campuses every day and meet students and staff. I enjoy the superintendent side of it and working with the kids and their families.”

After going through five superintendents in the previous seven years, Laredo ISD is entering its fourth year with Nelson at the helm, giving him a longevity unseen in Laredo for more than a decade.

Nelson points to improved Advanced Placement test scores, an increased graduation rate, lower drop-out rates, and an unprecedented number of Laredo schools earning the state’s highest academic rating as examples of what can happen “when a district – even one where kids are below the poverty line – is led by committed adults working together passionately for students.”

“For me, it’s about working with kids in poverty,” he said. “I’m attracted to places where a lot of people wouldn’t want to go. I’m attracted to the challenge. These kids deserve leadership that cares for every student every day and wants to be in the hood where often kids need courageous leadership the most.”

It’s a passion nurtured ever since a “joy bus” picked him up for church, and developed during his time at ACU.

“ACU has this unique way of blending the development of your faith with the development of your career that sets its graduates up for success in whatever career path they choose,” he said. “Today, as an employer, ACU grads just seem better prepared than other graduates I may be biased but I really believe something very special happens to people on the hill.”

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