Growing up poor in Bogotá, Colombia, Nelly Nelson knows firsthand about the “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s a driving force behind her desire to help the less fortunate as the family and consumer sciences agent for UF/IFAS Extension Manatee County. As we celebrate National Women’s History Month, we talked to Nelson about her background and what led her to work in Extension.
Q: Tell us about your background.
A: We had very little money. My mom worked two jobs — as a secretary and as an accountant to be able to send me, my brother and my sister to a private high school. Cafam High School provided me the opportunity to learn English and French. I got to know many international students from the United States and Canada and get exposed to their different ways of life and cultures. I moved to the United States in 2000. I was working for an electrical engineering company that moved me from Bogotá to Miami. I put myself through school by working full-time for a Swiss company as an electrical sales coordinator in Latin America. It was this job that opened my eyes to different standards of living. I am now the only member of my family who lives in the United States.
Q: What or who were your biggest influences/influencers as you grew up?
A: My mom has always been a very strong role model for me. She taught me the meaning of hard work, accomplishment, resilience and perseverance. She instilled in me that I can accomplish anything that I put my mind to, even things not normally obtained by women.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: I went to La Salle University in Bogotá to pursue my bachelor’s degree in business management. Then, in the United States, I pursued my master’s in business administration at the University of Phoenix. I am proud to be the first college graduate in my family.
Q: When, where and why did you start at UF/IFAS?
A: I was hired by UF/IFAS Extension Manatee County in 2016 as a family and consumer sciences agent. It was a good fit because of my previous role in outreach programming with the Manatee County School Board and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County.
Q: Tell us why you went into family and consumer sciences.
A: It is important for me to help bridge the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Just like in Colombia, “have-not” families here in the United States face similar disadvantages: less access to healthy food, and a lack of food safety and nutrition education. They also face more relationship issues at home.
Q: What do you teach in your Extension programs, and how does your outreach help residents and businesses in Manatee County and across Florida?
A: Conflict and stress reduction in relationships. When a person learns to control that which is stressful to him or her, conflict decreases in their relationships. Participants in SMART Couples learn productive methods for relieving stress, balancing time demands and taking care of their needs. Two-parent households engender a better environment for children.
- Food safety. The more people learn about food safety techniques, they more they can reduce the rate of food-borne illnesses, hospital or doctor’s visits as well as long-term disabilities and even death.
- Healthy-eating patterns. That includes diets rich in fruits and vegetables, which are associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and obesity.
- Financial management. Students opened savings accounts after completing our financial management and budgeting classes. They created financial plans that let them put a little money into their savings each week that could be used to pay for larger purchases or future expenses — instead of using credit cards.
Q: How do you reach your desired audiences?
A: I teach all of my programs in English and Spanish, and the vast majority of my classes, workshops and programs are free. I teach classes and workshops online and in person. Additionally, I do podcasts that are distributed to radio stations and posted online. I partner with organizations like local nonprofits, churches, food pantries, local farmers, public libraries and other UF/IFAS faculty, in which I help with the Family Nutrition Program and SMART Couples. I also share a lot of information through social media, primarily through Facebook and Instagram, and I have written a number of publications, news articles and blog posts.
Q: What accomplishment are you proudest of and why?
A: Personally, I am proud to give my son the opportunity to experience different cultures and values through his upbringing. I have made many sacrifices to give him the chance to visit other states and so he realizes he has many opportunities in this life — not just here, but internationally.
Professionally, I am proud to be recognized with two awards for significant contributions to sustainability and/or health and well-being during my time at UF/IFAS with two Champions for Change 2022 awards for the Office of Sustainability and Healthy Gators Coalition, University of Florida signed by (now-former) UF President Kent Fuchs.
Q: Do you feel any sense of obligation for, or opportunities as, a woman in Extension?
A: As a female faculty and minority in UF/IFAS, I feel the need to bring a new set of skills and perspective to UF/IFAS Extension. My goal is to increase our outreach and engagement with Hispanic and Latino Americans, which is why I consider my Spanish podcast partnership with iHeartRadio to be a tremendous accomplishment.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.
ifas.ufl.edu | @UF_IFAS