Shining Light on Black Excellence: Nyshel Nelson

By Hannah Newman

From the time her feet hit the field at 8 years old, junior criminal justice major Nyshel Nelson  envisioned herself in the National Women’s Soccer League. 

However, when life handed her a dose of reality, she decided to repurpose her passion to make a difference in the world and demonstrate to others how to do so in the process. 

“Everyone in the room you’re in has something to offer,” said Nelson. “I used to be narrow minded before I came [to Rider] when it comes to everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and how they are different for everyone. I’ve definitely gained an understanding of people … and embrace the things that I’ve done with an open mind.”

Living a life that revolved around cleats and kicks, Nelson’s world was struck down by the COVID-19 pandemic after her last season of high school was taken, bringing her varsity soccer career to an early end. No highlights, no clinics, nothing to add to her resume. In addition, financial responsibilities that came with maturing and helping her family pushed her farther away from the field physically, but never mentally. 

“Soccer is always going to be a part of me, but the energy and passion had to go someplace else. It’s a mindset change when one door closes; it’s not the end of the world,” said Nelson. “At first I was a little distraught, but the setback of COVID-19 was the time for me to rethink my decisions.”

Although soccer was the root of her drive for success, her goal of becoming an attorney fell adjacent to her passion for the game. Nelson decided to let college be the catalyst for her pursuit of a law degree. 

Despite receiving offers from out-of-state schools, Nelson decided that staying close to home and family in Camden, New Jersey, outweighed the reality of playing soccer despite the scholarship offer. 

Transitioning her life from a full-time athlete to college student was an immense step in Nelson’s life, however she found a way to navigate through the change.

The spring of Nelson’s freshman year was the first layer of her involvement as she began as a community assistant in Wright Hall. Acknowledging that her feet will always be facing the field, Nelson decided to join Rider’s club soccer team.

“I played on the club team for a little bit my freshman year, and then I realized, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t what I want to do,’ because I felt I was taking it too seriously, so I decided to up the time I would be giving soccer [and replacing it with] extracurricular activities,” said Nelson.

After Nelson’s departure, the club soccer team was replaced with mock trial, Black Student Union, Gail Bierenbaum Women’s Leadership Council, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which she was just elected president of in the fall of 2023, and Rider Bonner Community Scholars Program, where she now sits as a communications and marketing intern. 

Nelson’s heavy involvement has not only fulfilled the new chapter of her life but has enhanced the organizations she represents as well. 

Nyshel Nelson enjoys doing makeup in her free time.
Photo courtesy of Nyshel Nelson

Corrine Walton-Macaulay, vice president of BSU, said, “Nyshel is big on love. She will be the person to come up and talk to you and try to make you feel welcome and included.” Nelson’s incentive to join Rider Bonner Community Scholars Program came from a reminiscence of service work she participated in while living at home, such as food pantries and making hygiene kits for shelters.

Nelson became a site-based team leader at Gregory Elementary School, where she dedicated 10 hours a week to helping students develop leadership skills through mentorship and activities. She organized a field trip to Rider, where students were given a tour of Rider, a meet and greet with the basketball team and a first-hand experience of getting to know Bonner with a hope that they will participate in it one day.

“I’ve always been involved in service at home in Camden, which is a very similar area to Trenton, so when I heard of Bonner I knew it was actually what I needed to do,” said Nelson.

The leadership experience gained from the opportunities she has taken advantage of carried over into her efforts to chase becoming an attorney.

“What struck me about Nyshel is her interest in seeing the perspective of others,” said associate professor in criminology and sociology and adviser James Wojtowicz. 

 Nelson was the only student invited by  Wojtowicz to the American Society of Criminology conference last November located in Philadelphia, where she participated in a roundtable discussion regarding convict criminology courses.

 Wojtowicz felt that Nelson’s efforts in that class demonstrated reason why she should assert her student- based perspective to the roundtable, and Nelson did not fail to impress Wojtowicz with her ideas. 

“It was a national conference, so for them it’s a pretty big deal. She held her own and actually put out some really good suggestions to the group,”  he said. “In an environment that could have been intimidating for some students, she was very productive in the conversation of academics.”

Her life-long leadership and mission to promote women’s empowerment landed Nelson the position as president for Alpha Kappa Alpha soon after she joined in the fall semester. “It’s been a dream of mine [to be a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha] since I was nine, so now that I’ve hit that dream it doesn’t feel real,” said Nelson.

Nelson will graduate in fall 2024 and plans to spend the following semester preparing for law school. On her way to becoming an attorney, Nelson strives to be a reminder that being a leader is the most important job anyone could have. 

“Although playing soccer really encouraged what I loved to do, I questioned if that really served as my purpose because I really wanted to help people and pursue what I was meant to do,” said Nelson. 

This article is part of the Shedding Light on Black Excellence series by The Rider News to showcase impactful Black figures on campus. 

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