Katherine and Jack Nelson Smiling Together

For This Couple, Supporting First-Gen & Transfer Students is Personal

Oct. 4, 2019 - Wendy Martin

Growing up in a farming community in Staunton, Virginia, Katherine Gomez Nelson experienced kindness that was as steady as the seasons. “In the summer, we would have peaches from our neighbors. In the fall, a basket of apples would always show up on our back porch. If we got snowed in during the winter, someone would dig us out. And when we butchered, we gave hams as gifts,” she recalls. “That sense of community was a great model for how we can all live and support each other.” 

Decades later, reflecting her own long and challenging journey from community college to graduation from the VCU School of Business, Katherine and her husband John R. “Jack” Nelson, Jr. decided to do some seasonal giving of their own. In 2017, the philanthropic couple made a $100,000 pledge to provide five $4,000 scholarships each fall to deserving students for five consecutive years. The Katherine Gomez Nelson Endowed Scholarship is for students with demonstrated financial need who transfer from a Virginia community college with a 3.0 GPA to the VCU School of Business. 

The idea for the scholarship came from Jack Nelson, who retired in 2016 after serving as Altria’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. “Our focus for this scholarship came from Katherine’s undergraduate experience,” he said. “VCU has many students like her who are first generation or who first attended community college because they had limited resources. Ours isn’t a complete scholarship but it’s usually enough to enable students to not have to work an extra job or be saddled with additional student loans.”

Scholarship enables academic focus

Jala Sheppard, a business administration and management major at VCU, learned in July 2019 that she was among the third cohort of students selected to receive the Nelson’s scholarship. “I was so happy. The one concern I had about going to VCU was paying for it,” she says. 

Like Katherine, Jala first attended Reynolds Community College before transferring to VCU. During her junior year at VCU, she participated in a work study program that supplemented her financial aid package. But as she prepared to start her senior year, she learned that the funds for her previous work study position had been exhausted. The Nelson’s scholarship could not have come at a better time.

“In addition to my major, I decided to get a minor in Entrepreneurship. To graduate on time, I need to take six classes each semester. By not doing my work study job and with this scholarship, I have the time to take a full load and to make sure my academic performance stays high. This scholarship is such a blessing. I feel like it was a sign to me that academics are the area I need to do my best in. I want to be sure that the investment that was made in me was a good one.”

Katherine’s nine-year journey to a degree

Katherine Gomez Nelson today reflects on how a similar investment might have changed her own academic trajectory. Born to a Costa Rican father and a Virginian mother, Katherine followed the example of her older sister and brother by setting out for college after high school. The siblings were the first in their family to graduate from four-year institutions. Her sister started at a local community college but ultimately earned her master’s degree with academic scholarships. Her brother earned his undergraduate degree while on a football scholarship and later achieved a Ph.D. with proctorships. 

Katherine enrolled in Reynolds Community College in the mid-1980s. “Our parents didn’t have the means to put us through college. I started at Reynolds because I had to work and I wanted to avoid taking out school loans. One of struggles then was that community colleges still operated on quarters, not semesters, so class credits didn’t transfer as readily. That made it harder to navigate my way to VCU.”

After several years working and attending Reynolds part time, she enrolled at VCU with federal financial aid assistance. “I was motivated to graduate from VCU in two-and-a-half years,” she recalls. “I couldn’t afford to stay any longer.” She ultimately selected a public relations track at the now Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.  

Despite working continuously, she reluctantly took out $10,000 in student loans in order to graduate. All told, the journey to a four-year degree took Katherine approximately nine years, including summer and night classes. “You just don’t get through VCU without taking night classes,” she laughs.

“It was a really hard struggle in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Today more students are going to college and the path from community college to a four-year institution has become more clear. The biggest challenge today is finances. Our goal with this scholarship was to make it easier for others in need who desperately want to earn their four-year degree.”

An annual luncheon to meet scholarship recipients

At the end of each academic year, the Nelsons invite their scholarship recipients to a luncheon. “We make a point to meet all the students,” Jack explains. “They are uniformly excellent – so personable and many are first generation. These are just a wonderful bunch of students to help.”

 “VCU makes a tremendous selection each year,” Katherine agrees. “I end up in tears by the end of the luncheon, I’m so impressed by these young people. They are so focused, hardworking and intelligent.”

“I’ve tried to do what I could for others my entire life, but I never dreamed I would be able to be part of something like this scholarship,” Katherine says. “It’s such an honor and a blessing for my husband and me.”