Joe Nelson gives new meaning to the idea of “being involved.” Adopted by a single parent from his home country of Romania, the 20-year-old sophomore social work major from Collierville makes a difference by participating in college life beyond the classroom. His early experiences at UT Martin have inspired him to pursue a career path in which he can help others.
Joe’s start in life was anything but typical. His birth parents gave Joe and his sister up for adoption at five years and nine months of age respectively. Related paperwork took a year to complete, so Joe arrived in the U.S. after he turned six. The adoption rules specified that his adoptive mother had to spend a week with him in Romania “to see if I felt comfortable with her.” She sent photos and reports back to Romania for three months after he arrived in this country in order to document his progress, and he was allowed to remain.
His adoptive mother, Gayle, an artist whose husband (a professional football player and entrepreneur) died before Joe’s birth, also adopted his stepsister from Russia. Both Nelson stepchildren hold dual citizenships, but Joe plans to let his Romanian citizenship lapse. He was allowed to see his adoption paperwork when he turned 16, which showed him classified as an “abandonment child” as he was dropped off at a hospital as a baby. Blood work led officials to his parents who were given a court date to claim him, they didn’t come, and he was placed in an adoption agency. He has not pursued contact with his sister.
Joe was raised in Collierville and attended Collierville High School. “High school wasn’t the best thing for me,” he said, and although not heavily involved in outside activities, he did participate in theatre, art and choir. “Choir is my life basically, and I did art,” he said. He has an operetta voice but sang mostly classical music. “I was ranked third in the class within my range group,” he said of his choir experience. “So I think I’m pretty good.”
Joe sought a college where he could start anew, and UT Martin’s small campus offered Joe what he needed. “It’s a fresh start. I think of it like that,” he said. He also saw the university as a place where he could make a difference. “ … I was more about, you know, really caring about what I’m doing and making an impact. And this school definitely gave me opportunities to do that, so I wanted to take advantage of it.
“Plus, I love the Social Work Program here. I think it’s really good. The teachers are just so helpful, and they want to see you succeed, and they’ll try as hard as they can. And your communication with the teachers is just phenomenal I think.”
Joe initially planned to be a math teacher but decided to go a different direction. “I was more on the helping process, not more of the teaching process,” he said. Taking Social Work 220, Understanding Human Diversity and Oppressed Populations, showed him how he could help others, see progress and have no limits in what he could do.
Outside of class, Joe was elected to represent social work majors on the Student Government Association. He’s also an SGA representative on the university’s publications committee and is a Peer Enabling Program (PEP) leader for the first time this year, a role that allows him to help incoming students.
Besides his election to the SGA, Joe counts among his accomplishments being inducted into the Phi Eta Sigma freshman honor society, noting, “I have never gotten into the honor society before. ... I did put so much work into it.” His campus involvement and seeking leadership opportunities are part of who he is. “For me, I have to be doing something. I can’t just stand still. And this school gave me the opportunity, it gave me the courage, and it gave me the confidence to know I can do more than I thought I could ever do,” he said.
Joe sees advantages for most anyone who will step out and take part in college life. “Just going to school, yes, you gain the knowledge. Yes, you have more time to focus on school,” he said. “But if you are capable of handling more, and you know you can make a difference for this school, I think you need to (get involved).”
Don’t expect Joe Nelson to be a spectator in life. He’s already making a positive difference with his involvement at UT Martin.