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Professor Jenny Nelson Made a Difference in S. Africa’s Apartheid Era

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By Peter Tormey

SPOKANE, Wash. – When Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu delivers the keynote address at Gonzaga University’s Senior Commencement on May 13, his words will resonate especially with Gonzaga School of Education Professor Jenny Nelson, who experienced firsthand the policy of racial segregation known as apartheid that marginalized people of color in Tutu’s native South Africa for nearly four decades.

Ultimately, efforts by the Very Rev. Tutu, Nelson Mandela and people of conscience worldwide began the process to slowly dismantle apartheid, starting with Mandela’s 1990 release from prison. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first president elected in a fully representative democratic election; he served as president until 1999.

Nelson, a professor of teacher education, taught for 20 years under South Africa’s apartheid regime. Her work with both the privileged and the oppressed reflects her commitment to justice and equality. She frequently, in violation of the law, taught black students in a township near her hometown so they might become educated in a society that denied black students the same rights to education as white students.

Nelson began her teaching career at Krugersdorp High School, located in the heart of the conservative right-wing section of town. As a young social studies teacher, Nelson took her white students of privilege and introduced them to the South Western Township (Soweto).

One of her students would later recall Nelson’s efforts.

“I remember being both shocked and amazed at how big and close it was. Apartheid had worked so well that we, as young privileged white South Africans, had never before even seen the huge South Western Township,” the student noted. “Miss Nelson exposed us to the inequalities present in the system and gave us the tools to question them. We were taught not to be complacent and not to just accept things the way they were.”

The student’s complete letter is on display at the University of Bloemfontein, site of a historical collection documenting apartheid in South Africa and the impact that some teachers had on students during those troublesome times.

Harassed and repulsed by apartheid, Nelson left behind all she knew and loved in South Africa in 1989 for the United States.

Nelson has been teaching at Gonzaga ever since and has been a highly acclaimed teacher as well as a productive scholar, said her colleague, Associate Professor Jonas Cox. She is moving into phased retirement at the end of this year, after teaching for 21 years at Gonzaga, where she has specialized in both elementary and secondary social studies methods.

“Teaching prospective teachers and teaching about social justice (and injustice) is my passion,” Nelson said.

  1. Larry Cressey
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    When I first came to Gonzaga as a non-traditional student, Jenny was the one professor who assured me I could be successful as a teacher and inspired me to be the best I could be. Her class was the most memorable of all the classes I took as both an undergraduate and graduate student.

    Thanks Jenny! Enjoy your retirement.

  2. Michael Anderson
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you for your courageous actions in support of the oppressed, Dr. Nelson. I, my wife, and our two young boys lived in SA, in Buccleuch, in 1996. What a beautiful country and what beautiful people. Much of my work dealt with the reconciliation and forgiveness process in those early years after Apartheid. To this day I have been trying to find an excuse to return to your amazing country. I am thrilled to be at commencement to receive my MA in communication and leadership and hear Archbishop Tutu.

    Your efforts have surely made a difference. It is my hope and prayer that SA continues to heal and that more brave people such as yourself will stand against oppression. Thank you for your example.

    Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

  3. Susan Douglas
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    One of the most influential professors I had at gonzaga!

  4. Tisha Millersmith
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    Jenny! I am proud to have had you as an educator! I am proud to have lived in your beautiful home country of SA! I am most proud to have a BEAUTIFUL little girl from that great country of South Africa! I was so thrilled to see this from you! Thank you for standing up for what is right in the world, and for educating us about it!

  5. Keith Hoekema
    Posted March 24, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I was a history major at EWU in the late 80’s and worked with Jenny on a project with a group of gifted students at Cheney Middle School. This story brought back a flood of memories!

  6. Evelyne Ello Hart
    Posted March 26, 2012 at 6:57 am

    Thank you for such an inspiring story.
    I sent the link to one of our faculty in the Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins.
    Thank you for sharing the wisdom of Prof. Nelson.