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Shannon Nelson: Jumping Back Into Education After 23 Years

In 1993, Shannon Nelson walked across the stage in the Marriot Center to accept her bachelor’s diploma in exercise science. Shaking hands with the dean, she planned to continue her education and become a physical therapist. Life, however, took her on another journey offering her two decades of growing experiences.

Once Nelson decided it was time to pursue her educational goals with an advanced degree, she considered her evolving interest in gardening. “I was tired of finding conflicting information about gardening online,” she says. “I love learning, I’m very interested in learning about how things work. . . I wanted to learn the principles of soil and gardening.”

Shannon Nelson surrounded by the green and maroon foliage of her research space.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

It had been over two decades since she enrolled in classes, two decades since she studied for exams and worried about which courses to take, two decades since she called herself a full-time student. Slowly dipping her toes back into the water, Nelson took one class at a time for a few semesters until she applied for the plant and wildlife master’s program. After a few years of study and a growing body of research, her advisors recommended she apply for the PhD program. When asked about coming back to school full-time, she admits, “I was quite terrified, actually, to come back.”

Nelson’s experience as a non-traditional student is a great example to those who are thinking of returning to university. Though the gap seems like a setback to her studies, she argues that her life experience has given her an advantage. Instead of worrying about her future, she felt free to choose exactly what she wanted to study.

“Never underestimate what you can do,” she states. “I did not think that I would be able to dig chemistry out of my brain, but it was there. It was just buried under a few other things, but it was there. So don’t ever assume that if you haven’t done something in a while that you can’t do it. You can. . . I had some life experience that you don’t have when you’re in your twenties. Sit down and really think about things that you enjoy doing. If you’re going to put in all the time, do it on something that you like, not on something that someone tells you you should. . . Jump in, give it everything you’ve got.”

Shannon Nelson pours water over absorbent materials as part of her research.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

Nelson is grateful for her time back at her undergraduate university. She fondly describes one of the most important things she took from her time at BYU: “I have gained a huge appreciation for the earth that we live on and for its Creator. It’s absolutely amazing the processes that He has put in place that make our lives and our Earth run, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s not by accident, that there’s purpose to it.”

This period is just another step along Nelson’s journey dedicated to life-long learning. She plans to continue to jump into whatever opportunities life gives her. “I have grown in ways that I never thought I would, or ever dreamed I could,” she reflects. “I think the Lord is interested in us and our growth in all kinds of ways and He is willing to help us. So just move forward as best we can and let Him do the rest.”