Editor’s Note: In February 2014, general Young Women president Bonnie Oscarson announced nine new members to the Young Women General Board. This interview is the first in a series of interviews with those nine women, who are located around the world and represent a broad cross section of the Church’s female population today.
Young Women General Board member Janet Nelson raised four children in New York City. And while she was doing that, she was chipping away at a Master’s degree in Mathematics and periodically teaching high school math. In 2012, after 20 years of classwork, Janet received her graduate degree. Janet feels her extensive experience with urban high school students gives her unique perspective into the realities of being a teenager today, and despite her city life, her love for camping and the outdoors makes her the perfect chairwoman of the general Young Women’s Camp Committee.
Would you tell me about your upbringing, and how your family influenced who you are today?
My dad was a professor at the University of Utah, but his job took him to Europe and we tried to go with him as often as possible. Before I graduated from high school we had lived in Germany three times, for about nine months or a year at a time. We would go to Germany, and then come home to Salt Lake City and then go back.
I was the sixth of seven children. My dad was a manager. He managed our family. We always had a lot of jobs and job charts. If he had had Excel, it would have been great. We had weekly jobs, dinner jobs, and dishwashing, and then Saturdays were family time. We had property in Grantsville and we would go out and work on the fences, and go to the cabin in Lamb’s Canyon, and work on the cabin. One time my dad said, “Janet, you’re the only 16-year-old girl who knows how to put up a combination wire fence.” And I said, “Dad, there are no 16-year-old boys who care about that.” But that was what our family did. We learned to work and that was the fun.
Tell me more about living in Germany. Did you go to school when you were living there?
I did. The first time we were there it was just in the summer. Then the second time I was in 7th grade and I went to a German school with my brother and sister in Wiesbaden. We kind of split our time between the German ward and the American ward, because the German ward didn’t have any youth. So we went to Mutual in the American ward and actually my first Young Women experience was in Germany. In my Salt Lake ward, there were at least fifteen girls my age in my ward, but over there, there were maybe two. So it was a completely different experience and I got a lot of personal attention. Then, when I was a sophomore, we went back to Europe for nine months, to Stuttgart, Munich and Spain. I was home schooled that time so we were going to museums all the time. My dad taught us to enlarge photos, develop film and go to the photo lab. Because he had military privileges, we did that on the air base. My parents really took advantage of our living there. And then I spent a summer with a Spanish family in Spain. My parents just dropped us off and we spent six weeks with them.
I felt really at home in Germany. As a matter of fact, later when my husband and I went back with our family to live in Germany, he asked me, “How do you feel?” I said, “I feel like I just came home.” I felt really comfortable there, it was another home to me.
Did you have any goals for yourself when you were young?
You will recognize my age by this: so, my goals were to graduate from college with a marketable job, put my husband through graduate school and start a family. I can honestly say that’s really what I had in mind. My dad said everybody has to go through those lean graduate years and that is part of life. So that is just what I thought you did.
I met my husband in college, we married right after I graduated, and then I taught school high school math all the time he was in law school. That goes back to my goal of getting a marketable job: female math teachers in the 1980s were all the rage, so I knew I would be able to get a job as a high school math teacher.
It sounds like your dad had a huge influence on you. Did he expect you to eventually give up the marketable job to have a family?
My mom is a painter. She raised seven children but she never had a job outside the home. My dad always made sure she had time to paint and she was quite prolific and has some really beautiful paintings. Because of her, I always had in my mind that I should have something that I like to do. But I did think the purpose of a job was in case I needed to provide for my family, and there wasn’t any push to get a graduate degree because in our family it was the boys who were expected to do that. It was very generational. But all seven of us graduated from college and it was never said and I don’t know how those things get translated, but we all just knew we were supposed to go to college.
So I just thought, I will go to school, work for a while and then have my kids. I don’t really think I got much past that thought process. But then, in 1984, Jeff was looking for a job and he had an offer in New York. We just felt like this was the place that we were supposed to be. Our family thought we were crazy.
You know, New York in those years was pretty rough. Everybody had a mugger story. But we just said to ourselves, “If we hate it we can come home but if we don’t go now we will never leave Salt Lake.” Jeff had served his mission in Germany and went to school in Germany for a year, so I think we both just felt like there was more that we wanted to have in our lives. Living in Germany really prepared me for life in New York. People in Germany didn’t have huge cars and they didn’t have big homes and they ride public transportation… so coming to New York, all of that was natural to me.
We didn’t wake up every day and say, “Should we stay here or should we move?” But when those junctions came up in our lives, we just always felt like we were where we needed to be. And things would open up for us… In 2000, Jeff and I moved our whole family to Germany for three years. He works for a German bank so we could do that. My oldest daughter was a sophomore in high school, and my youngest was just starting first grade.
What year did you move into this brownstone?
1994. Getting into this house was also a blessing. I was seven months pregnant with Sam and I had three kids already and we lived in about an 800 square foot apartment.
Had you come immediately to Brooklyn when you moved to New York City?
Yes, we were always in Brooklyn. We were just around the corner from where we are now. We felt like the hand of the Lord opened it up for us to acquire our home. When we got it, we both felt like there is a stewardship with owning this house. I feel like it’s been, in part, a home for the Church here in Brooklyn. We’ve been able to have so many church-related events here. I think what I also learned was that we were meant to stay. We have been able to have so many General Authorities in our home to have dinner and to sleep here when they’ve come on assignment. That has been a real blessing to our family.
It’s an amazing space to have in New York City.
It’s kind of embarrassing sometimes when we realized what other people have and now it’s only the two of us. But it has been such a blessing. For example, during our last Stake Conference, I think we had 31 people here. We put these long table here in the parlor. We put the kids downstairs and we had everybody else up here. It’s great! When Elder Jensen came a couple of years ago for a special conference, he said, “You know it’s been a long time since I slept in a bunk bed.” But it has been a blessing to have this home.
For me, when we first moved to New York, my eyes were opened. There were so many opportunities, but I really was afraid to teach school because I thought I would probably get killed. But that was my Utah thinking, and eventually I decided to go back to school so I could teach here. I first enrolled in a non-degree computing program at Columbia. Then I got involved at Hunter College as well. I met really great people at both Columbia and Hunter. That was the neatest thing about moving here: to immediately get to know and gain trust of people who were not Mormons who just were really good to me.
I remember one interview I had for a teaching position at Hunter. I was pregnant. I sat there with my purse on my lap because I thought, “This woman will never hire me because I am due in December when exams are…” In Utah at that time, a pregnant woman would never have gotten the job so I was trying to hide. But she asked me, “When is your baby due? We will cover your classes when your baby’s born.” She hired me and we are still good friends all these years later. I had so many teachers and colleagues at that time who were so good to me.
So I worked on my Master’s and taught classes at Hunter High School, and then decided to stay home for a while after my second child. After my third child was born, I went back into my program. I signed up for a class each semester. There were lots of doubts along the way, lots of breaks, but I’ve been able to do a little at a time. I started my program in 1984 and I graduated in December of 2012.
Yep I did! I just kept going for 20 years. I set that goal to get that Master’s. All the time that I had those kids I knew that I was going to go back. Sometimes I would draw little charts and think, “When this child is in this grade I can go back for another class…”
So you had contacts and mentors at both Columbia and Hunter that really fostered you along and helped you?
Yeah! There were some really good people that I kept in touch with. And so I’ve been teaching math at Hunter High School, a gifted and talented school in Manhattan, for the past several years. The way I got my job at one of the best high schools in the city after being home with kids for 23 years is really miraculous. It was so obvious to me that the Lord had a hand in this. I really think the school benefited because I brought something as a mother; I am a pretty upbeat person and I think I brought a cheerfulness to the department. I have to say, I have always tried to squeeze in the art aspect of Math that the school typically doesn’t do at all: looking at the geometric patterns in Islamic art, things like that. Math teachers are always talking about the applications of math in science, but how about in art?
The timing of my calling to the Young Women’s board is also miraculous because the school had hired me as long as it could under a certain type of contract, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. I can honestly say that Heavenly Father has opened doors, just when I was trying to figure out my next step. Before I got the calling, I was thinking, “I am going to do my part and do my leg work but Heavenly Father will open the right door for me because he knows what is going on in my life and he is helping me get there.”
Let’s step away from the professional pursuits for a little bit to the subject of your spiritual development. Was there a particular time that you gained a testimony? What kinds of experiences have strengthened your testimony?
Okay, so I hope I can get through this without being too emotional. The answer to this question is directly tied to your first question, because going from Salt Lake to Germany back to Salt Lake was really important in developing my testimony. I have journal entries that indicate that I recognized how different I felt when I was in Germany. To use the term we used in the 70s, Germany was the “mission field” and I recognized that I was a different person in those two places.
My parents didn’t talk about stuff like this at home so this was all internal. I have journal entries from when I was in seventh grade in Germany: I felt the spirit so strongly in sacrament meeting. So I know that I was aware of my testimony, but I don’t remember feeling that in Utah. It’s very interesting. In Germany, we went to church in some back little room and 20 people are showing up for church. It was so meaningful to me.
I came home from Germany at the start of my junior year of high school and I was living with my oldest sister, while my parents were still in Germany. It turned out that sister had cancer. She had to go to the hospital so I moved in with a neighbor. Kind of a crazy time! My little sister was living with my brother then he had to go donate his bone marrow for my oldest sister, so my younger sister ended up going with some other neighbor… so we were just all over the place. It was a really unusual year. I eventually donated platelets for my sister for five weeks straight. I think that is what changed my whole life.
I was 16. She died while I was giving platelets. She was 28. I had some amazing experiences while I was with her. We had miracle after miracle after miracle but she wasn’t really getting better so we realized maybe this is her time to go. I left there knowing three things so powerfully that I can never deny them: 1) God knew us. He knew that my family was there. 2) I knew He lived. I knew He knew who I was and who my sister was and 3) I knew the Plan of Salvation was real. I just knew she was alive. That to me is like the foundation of everything I believe.
For many years after that, it was difficult for me to try and match that powerful spiritual feeling I had at my sister’s death. I would think, “Do you have to have a tragedy to gain this kind of a testimony?” And for years I struggled with how to match that, to return to those feelings. I think about Alma talking about those who are compelled to be humbled; I was compelled because I wanted her to live, or at least to die peacefully. It’s been hard to ever want something quite that badly since then.
When the Manhattan temple was dedicated, I was one of the tour guides, which was a great experience for me because I really had to prepare myself spiritually. I thought, “Okay, I didn’t serve a mission but I’m going to be a missionary here and I’m not going to tell people things I don’t really believe myself.” So I really challenged myself to ask myself what I believe. That was a really wonderful experience for me. After it was dedicated, I went to an endowment session by myself. I had never been to the temple alone because we would always go to the Washington D.C. temple as a couple. I just wanted to know if it was different after it was dedicated. I had given more than 30 tours through it, but it was different that time.
What other things have strengthened my testimony? I think that visiting teaching is one of my favorite things in life. Visiting other people gives me perspective. I am strengthened so much by other people’s faith. And then just all the Sunday School answers. You read your scriptures and you pray and you are where you are supposed to be and you are strengthened. You go to sacrament meeting and you are edified and if you don’t go you aren’t. Are you edified every single time? Of course not, but how do you know when it’s going to be that time? Even meetings can be strengthening! I have been in so many of those meetings that you just think, this is good.
Living in Germany as an adult when we were there as a family also strengthened my testimony. Europeans live in much closer quarters culturally. We lived two hours from Amsterdam and four hours from Paris. So when you go to the temple in Frankfurt, you’ve got people from France and people from Ukraine next to each other. It’s just culturally so diverse. I just used to sit in the temple and think about how different these people are culturally and that the only thing that can bring them together is the Gospel. And that was just so fascinating to me: French people would be doing temple work for German names and Germans would be doing work for Poles, and I would think, “These people haven’t always liked each other but the through God and the Gospel all things are possible.”
One of the things I am told in my patriarchal blessings is that I have a believing heart. And that really rings true. I just am a believer. I just have always been willing to serve and I feel like here in New York I have been asked to do things that I would never be asked to do anywhere else. I have grown in ways I never expected. I have never viewed myself as a leader, but I have become a leader because I have been given the opportunities.
Is there a particular doctrine that gives you confidence and comfort?
As I mentioned, I love the Plan of Salvation. It’s not a doctrine, but my patriarchal blessing says that I should prepare for something and that I should work hard with a lot of energy. I felt like that really was who I was trained by my parents to be. A hard worker, both in earthly ways and spiritual ways. I have always read the Book of Mormon I always make sure I read it once a year. I have used it as my parenting manual. If you read the Book of Mormon with an angle, I find it has just got everything in it you need.
Would you give me an example?
I remember I was standing on the corner waiting to go visit teaching. I am a Martha not a Mary so I don’t ponder very much so it’s good for me to be forced to think. I had just been reading all the war chapters. When you’re reading those, you tend to think “What are all these stories in here for?” I had a child that I was really struggling with, and all of a sudden at that moment I thought, “They never gave up. They tried strategy after strategy. They never just said okay these Lamanites outnumber us and they’ve captured these cities. We will just give that property to them.” They kept trying until they won and I thought about how I couldn’t give up on this child. I just needed to try different strategies. That gave me so much hope. I think with children we have only lost the battle once we quit trying.
So let’s turn to the Young Women’s organization… What do you think is the greatest strength of Young Women? What do you feel you uniquely bring to it?
I think the greatest strength is the individual Young Women, their faith and their testimonies. For six years, I helped run Girls’ Camp for our stake. So I got to see our girls go from their first year to graduating and going to college. I was so impressed with them. When I compared their experiences to my life, I realized that I really had no clue who I was or what I wanted to do at their age. But they have strong testimonies. They’re focused. They want to serve missions and they’re preparing for them. They’re amazing! They’ve thought through some difficult things early and they made conscious choices. I think the leaders who get to work with them benefit from that. The leaders are supposed to be the one leading and guiding, but it’s one of those things where the Young Women also strengthen the leaders.
Can you describe some of the particular challenges you’ve dealt with among the Young Women?
One of the things I benefit from here in New York is that our Young Women programs are usually stretched and have fewer resources, so we are forced to focus just on what is vital. I think that is a perspective that I can bring to the Young Women board: what is the core? We don’t need all the trappings to get at the vital part of the Gospel. I also have a sensitivity to bridging cultural differences. I know from our own stake that whatever little English cliché you say has to be translated to Spanish and Mandarin and whatever and it might not quite work. I bring an awareness of how different cultures and languages get along.
I have a lot of camp experience. I’m really outdoorsy and I love to camp. I don’t think that’s something a lot of members of the board have. I’m excited to bring that to the group.
How do you feel that teaching math in a New York City public high school has prepared you to work with the young women of the Church?
I had 125 students this past year. I taught tenth and eleventh grade this year. I have taught seventh, ninth, tenth, and eleventh the last four years so I have pretty much taught students that span the whole age range of the Young Women’s program. I have seen not only how they mature and how they are with their peers, but I see the struggles that all religious youth deal with, especially at an extremely gifted secular school where religion is not well thought of. I’ve been with those kids day in and day out. I don’t think it even matters that it’s New York City because I really think that youth deal with a lot of the same things wherever they are.
Having such insight into youth today, what do you think are most valuable things that the Young Women program can do for young women?
The young women need to know who they are, and they learn that in the Young Women program. They need to know that they’re daughters of God and they can’t just recite the theme on Sundays. They really have to internalize that: I know when I’m struggling, Heavenly Father is there for me. Girls are alone a lot in their decisions, even when they’re surrounded by other members of the Church.
I think having programs where they set goals and work towards them is great. They need to know how to function in the world and be spiritual, and achieve goals in both areas. I came from a goal setting family so goals are easy for me, but I don’t think that everyone has that. Personal Progress is great for that.
I also think having relationships with leaders is so valuable. It is important for youth to have mentoring relationships in addition to parents. Each one of my children has had somebody in their life that they have been able to talk to. The Young Women program offers that to our girls today. As a mom I was grateful for those leaders who took time to encourage and listen to my children.
How has this calling changed you personally since receiving it?
Well, the process of receiving the call was just so amazing to me. It was January, and the phone rang at home. I was talking to my son on the other line, but it was an 801 number. We get those all of the time because my husband is stake president here, but I told my son to hold on a minute. I switched over and a woman says she’s calling from Elder Holland’s office and she’d like to set up a video conference with me and Jeff. So my first thought always is it’s something to do with Jeff’s calling. It was actually hard to schedule it because my daughter was about to have a baby and I had a trip planned… but I tried not to tell Elder Holland’s office that I couldn’t fit him in! But the call was scheduled for a week away, and my mind was going crazy. We had just gotten the Church News and they had just announced all the mission presidents, so I didn’t think it was that. In my mind, this was all about Jeff. And Jeff would say, “Why can’t this be about you?” But that just seemed silly to me.
So we actually did the video conference in Hunter High School in between my classes. That probably broke all the rules but I was in the middle of exams and I just couldn’t leave. Jeff came to the school and we just set it up in a back office. When Elder Holland came on the screen, the Young Women’s presidency was there with him. And all of a sudden it just hit me: this was not about Jeff. We had a very warm conversation and then Elder Holland formally called me to the Young Women general board. The thing that was amazing to me was that through all this technology, I could feel the spirit. I mean, here we were in this little cubicle office and we’ve got this laptop set up and they’re in Salt Lake two thousand miles away but it was a beautiful spirit. Elder Holland asked Jeff to set me apart right then and there.
How did that work? Even though he’s Stake President, your husband doesn’t have the keys…
No, no he doesn’t have the keys. Elder Holland has the keys but he authorized Jeff to do it. So officially I was called by Elder Holland but set apart by Jeff Nelson.
One of the things I feel strongly is that this calling is one of the things that was mentioned in my patriarchal blessing, one of the things I was preparing for and working hard for. Elder Holland didn’t know that and Sister Oscarson didn’t know that. I just feel like I am just a basic mom who goes to church and does what I am supposed to do, but Heavenly Father is my rock and He knows who I am. I may not always be able to see my potential but I feel like my husband is a great advocate for me and I feel like Heavenly Father knows what I can do and I have really learned to trust that. So as overwhelming as it was initially, I feel like He knows what I can do. It gives me a lot of faith to think Joseph Smith was a farm boy with a third grade education and look what he did. So if I just put my trust in Heavenly Father I can be whatever instrument He wants me to be. That is really comforting.
I think part of the purpose of being called to something, to anything, is to stretch us and to take us out of our comfort zones. The board is made up of amazing women. Just across the board really great women! So to have that association is amazing! But also I’m being stretched and asked to do things that I am not really comfortable doing. And it’s okay.
I’m the chairman of the camp committee, which is great. But I’m also serving on the media and communications committee and I don’t even have a Facebook page, so I am being stretched. I would always choose to do camp. But choosing to sit down and make myself a Facebook page? No way. But I feel like that’s what life is all about: we don’t want to be stagnant. We want to grow.
At A Glance
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Marital status: Married Jeff Victor Nelson, 8/4/1981 Salt Lake Temple, (Utah, USA)
Children: Emily Dean, Teresa Halversen, Nate Nelson, Sam Nelson
Occupation: Secondary Schools Mathematics Teacher
Schools Attended: East High School (Utah), University of Utah, Hunter College (CUNY), Columbia University (NYC, NY)
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “God Loved Us So He Sent His Son”
Interview produced by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.