When you’re a first-generation college student, there’s really no way to know what’s just ahead.
Shaun Nelms, Ed.D., who grew up in Buffalo, knew about Fredonia’s educational programs. He was interested in political science and becoming a teacher, so the curriculum was a good fit, “but I had no idea what the social environment would be like at college.”
Many of his Fredonia contemporaries had parents who had gone to college, which meant they arrived on campus with a sense of what to expect.
That was not a concern for Shaun. He was in good hands at Fredonia.
“Fredonia quickly wrapped its arms around me and students like myself through various programs,” Shaun explained. One of them was the Educational Development Program, an academic support services program that helps disadvantaged students succeed in college. Both inside and outside of the EDP, Shaun says there were many adults who supported students academically as well as socially so they could adapt to their new environment.
Failure was not an option in EDP.
“They said, ‘You were going to be successful; we’re going to make you successful,’” he recalls. EDP meets regularly with each student to make sure they are realizing success. “When you have those individuals in your life, and you know that they are there for the sole purpose of making you successful, you’re much more likely to dedicate yourself so you don’t disappoint not only yourself, but disappoint them.”
You wouldn’t know it today by talking with Shaun, but his initial experience at Fredonia was anything but smooth sailing.
“I sort of muddled through my first year, figuring out what college was all about,” said Shaun, who went on to earn two advanced degrees. He started out as a classroom teacher before holding several high-level administrative positions in public education. But Fredonia was prepared to deliver the support that Shaun, now superintendent of East High School in Rochester, N.Y., needed.
“What I was most impressed about Fredonia is that they provide a nurturing environment for students. There were adults at every corner,” Shaun remembers. Where you’d expect them, of course, and where you wouldn’t.
The usual suspects, of course, were faculty and counselors, as well as the Educational Development Program, which provides ongoing support to disadvantaged students. Shaun also found guidance in Athletics as a four-year member of the men’s basketball team.
Coach Greg Prechtl became a father figure. “My father passed away when I was a sophomore, so having someone there to talk through certain issues, for someone to be supportive and also hold me accountable for doing the right thing was extremely important,” he said. The Athletic Department was much more than basketball.
“The academic requirements became more important than the sport itself, but the coaches, the custodians, the uniform guys -- those individuals all wrapped around you, wrapped their arms around us to make sure we were successful academically.”
He also remembers a residence hall custodian who offered to take him to church with her every Sunday because, Shaun remembers, “she felt that being spiritually connected was important.”
Shaun credits off-campus groups, such as Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club, as sources of enrichment. Through these organizations he was able to meet businessmen and businesswomen. “When you talk about a nurturing environment, Fredonia is much more than a campus; it’s an entire community.”
Shaun also praised Dr. Dennis Hefner, Fredonia’s 12th president, who “made it his business to get out to sporting events, and to get out to clubs and activities, to ensure that what we were doing was right,” he recalled.
Success followed both in the classroom and in athletics.
Shaun was a member of the men’s basketball team for four years. He led the team in steals in two seasons, and also in assists in one season. He earned a B.S. in Social Studies-Secondary Education in 1999, and a M.S. in Educational Administration and Ed.D. in K-12 school leadership, both from the University of Rochester.
Now superintendent of East High School in Rochester, N.Y., other positions held by Shaun included deputy superintendent, chief of schools, middle school principal, assistant principal and classroom teacher.
Shaun was named EDP’s Distinguished Alumnus of the Year in 2008.
“When I think about Fredonia, I think about Fredonia as an incredibly rich academic environment, but more importantly, it’s a place that nurtures students where they are.
Shaun remembers the first donation he made to Fredonia after graduating in 1999.
It was $25.
As a first-year teacher, Shaun didn’t have the financial means to “give a lot.”
But what he quickly realized was that if everybody who graduated gave just a little, it would enable the university to enhance educational programs. And as Shaun advanced through the public school system, he has generously increased his level of giving every year, based on ability to give more.
“I am proud to say that I have donated to an environment that has given me so much. I can never match financially how Fredonia has shaped me -- as a man and as a professional, as a husband and as a father -- but any incremental gift can help another student reach that potential and that dream as well.”
Campaigns to give back to Fredonia, Shaun reflects, appeal to the true essence of what the university means.
“When you find a university that truly makes every student matter; an environment where nurturing of the youth and nurturing of future professionals is at the core of their existence, is at the base of their mission statement, it makes it easy to give,” he said.
“It makes it easy to give recommendations to students who are applying to Fredonia, and it changes generations. When I attended Fredonia, I was the first student in my family to attend college, and Fredonia was one of the first colleges that reached out to me,” Shaun remembers.
Now, Shaun recommends Fredonia to family members as well as other students. And they’ve listened.
“They knew that it was a place that I spoke highly of; it was a place that was truly inclusive and diverse. It was a place that celebrated individuality, but it also challenged us to think more broadly about impacting the world,” he said.
Financial donations are important to higher education, Shaun notes, to “keeps programs going.” But it’s also important to be a resource for Fredonia in the community. He speaks highly of the university to students who are considering college. “The best thing that you can do is champion the cause of Fredonia by speaking about it and sharing your experience as a student.”