Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Kurt Nelson is leaving Colby
By Lutie Brown
Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Kurt Nelson will be leaving the College on Dec. 21. He will be assuming the position of Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Bucknell University, where he (as a Protestant chaplain) will oversee the whole program and a team of chaplains.
“It’s an amazing opportunity at Bucknell; I’ll have a staff of seven there, which is just radically different from here. I love the work and I want to do it as well as possible,” Nelson said. “I think Colby needs it and I’ve loved doing it here, but there’s only so much one person can do with this amount of work in a week.”
Nelson’s first day at Bucknell will be Jan. 7. The transition plan to temporarily fill his seat is currently in motion, and Nelson feels confident about his replacement, he said.
Nelson will forever fondly remember his relationships with students on campus. “I have worked hard to cultivate communities that are responsive to the kinds of views I have heard here, and I have a wonderful group of student leaders and I setup a program I am really proud of.”
Nelson was the first person to serve in the Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life position at the College. e only aspects of that department that are the same as when he arrived on campus in the fall of 2012 are Hillel and the “Carols and Lights” service.
“Everything is different from when I arrived here, so it’s hard to pick one highlight,” he said. “I love our weekly multifaith council meetings and the fellows I work with to make that happen; we’ve done gospel residences these last three years that have been really meaningful to me and were really special for our community — they connected us to a broader group.”
The original job posting at Colby (over 6 years ago) was unprecedented, Nelson said. “Chaplaincies either have historical momentum or they don’t really exist on secular college campus- es for the most part, so to have the opportunity to do something fresh was really exciting.”
Nelson was a prominent community member on campus. He spent Sunday and Wednesday nights hosting and eating dinners with students and his Sundays in Lorimer Chapel. In addition to those community programs, he led programs with residence halls and sta , as well as regular trips to the homeless shelter.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be the person I am today without knowing Kurt Nelson. He has been an incredible ally, mentor, and friend throughout my years at Colby,” Carolyn Jones ’19 said. She became a Multi-Faith fellow her sophomore year, and joined the HoPE Housing that Nelson created.
Nelson also created the Lives of Purpose program on campus, and is very proud of the work that the students have done, he said. “The thing I noticed most when I first arrived was that first years were feeling disconnected and they really wanted to talk. It wasn’t always easy finding ways to talk, so we wanted to do that in a way that was connected and serious and would appeal to a broad range of folks, regardless of their religious entry point,” Nelson said.
“It’s taken a long time to find a partner and a project that work, and a leadership team that glues that all together, but I’m really pleased with it and I’m proud of the work that those folks do. It makes a difference for the participants to have a connection, and it makes such a big difference for the families and the kids at the shelter,” he said.
Nelson also recalls his joys from traveling with students. “We built a different program for Alternative Spring Break, doing the interfaith work and building out reflective sessions, which I hope and expect will be our model going forward for all of our trips, so I’m excited about that.”
All of Nelson’s prior commitments will continue as scheduled; Faculty Fellow in Religious Studies Ryan Harper will teach Nelson’s JanPlan (“The Good Life”), Rabbi Erica Asch will lead the Alternative Spring Break trip, the Office of Civic Engagement will take over the Lives of Purpose program, Campus Life will continue with the residential option Hall of Purpose Exploration (HoPE), and his interim replacement will continue with the multi-faith work and chapel, Nelson said.
Overall, Nelson is very excited about his big move to Bucknell. “I fully expect that we will have the finest chaplaincy in the country. They have a really talented team and I find myself enlivened and energized,” he said.
“Everything I’ve done here has been in response to needs that I’ve seen — trying to find folks and bringing them together so they can talk about what’s important to them. That’s the thesis statement of Spiritual Life at Colby under my tenure, so that will certainly be the same, though there are ways in which I hope Col- by will find to support its underrepresented religious communities that we aren’t able to do very well yet,” Nelson said.
“There is no employee of the College that better advocates for the needs of the student body in their words and their actions [than Nelson],” Jones said. “I became a better person with every conversation I ever had with Kurt. Every single one. I could not be more grateful for the support he has given me through some of the most challenging times in my life.”
Nelson’s advice to students is “to find your people, and give it time,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen right away and that’s okay. That’s the real joy of being at a place like this and learning together–it’s being surrounded by such talented and interesting people, and taking the time to get to know them, especially if they think and believe differently from you. It’s a really special opportunity.”
Nelson appreciates the College’s intellectual work and conversations about mental health, “but at the root of all the challenges we see is, in my humble opinion, community or a lack thereof. It’s really worth the time to find your people,” he said. “It’s not my intent to tell a negative story. I’m really grateful for my time here, and I’m really excited about my next chapter. It’s sad to leave the students I’ve worked with and the allies I have here, but it’s exciting to see what happens next.”