When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the San Diego Community College District to transition
to online and distance learning, Mesa College journalism student Lance Nelson saw
an opportunity to make a difference. He sold virtually all his possessions and flew
to New York — the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak — where he has been
volunteering since April 1 with food banks and pantries that feed struggling residents.
“Every person I meet tells me the same thing: ‘You picked a weird time to move to
New York,’” Nelson said.
Giving back isn’t anything new; Nelson has volunteered with the San Diego Food Bank
and other nonprofits during the two years he has attended Mesa College, where he also
worked as Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Mesa Press student-run newspaper.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said about volunteering in New York
City. Almost as soon as Nelson arrived, he signed up with New York Cares, the largest
volunteer network in the city.
“It’s been surreal,” said Nelson, who is staying near Greenwich Village at the apartment
of a friend who left for upstate New York to escape a city where nearly a thousand
residents were dying daily and tens of thousands more were being diagnosed with the
disease at the peak of the pandemic. “The subways are deserted. Everyone is wearing
a mask. You’re providing meals and groceries to people who have lost their job, who
have lost a friend, who have lost a relative, and they’re just so grateful for what
Nelson’s decision to volunteer in New York doesn’t surprise those who know him.
“His leadership qualities are amazing and to see the confidence he has gained has
been truly remarkable,” Mesa College Journalism Professor Janna Braun said. “He’s
just a nice person to be around, the type of student we all want to be in our classrooms.
He’s the reason why I went into education.”
Nelson’s actions underscore how Mesa College has impacted his life and helped him
heal. Struggling with his sexuality and his identity while growing up in the San Joaquin
Valley town of Selma, Nelson describes his high school as “a dark place” where he
was bombarded daily with homophobic slurs and occasional locker room threats.
He left the Central Valley after graduating high school and worked a variety of jobs
while dealing with the fallout from years of psychological abuse. When he moved to
San Diego, he realized it was time to earn a degree, but even after pulling up to
the Mesa College parking lot for the first time, Nelson, then 30, was too anxious
to leave his car and considered driving back home.
“I just sat there,” he said. “I finally began walking to class and the first thing
I see is this big rainbow banner with the words ‘Mesa Pride.’ I figured I could do
Nelson had found a place to call home.
He utilized the free therapy and counseling sessions, he began writing for the college
newspaper, he signed up for the Mesa College Honors Program, he became a member of
the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, he was a regular on the Dean’s List, and he will
graduate this spring with a 4.0 GPA.
“I’ve never had a 4.0 in my life,” he said, “but Mesa provided me with the kind of
environment where I could succeed.”
Nelson also has succeeded in building a following of nearly 45,000 subscribers on
his YouTube channel, “LanceTheDriver,” which touches on sexuality and LGBTQ and which
takes its title from the vehicles automotive manufacturers lend him as a promotional
tool. The modest income from the channel, along with an occasional odd job, is sustaining
him in New York.
He will be in the city for the foreseeable future. Nelson will transfer to Columbia
University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights as a human rights major this
fall; he received his acceptance letter in May.
“I don’t know where I’d be had I not gone back to school,” said Nelson, who hopes
to work for the United Nations and advocate for the LGBTQ community. “In the two years
of attending Mesa, I went from questioning my own self-worth to finding my purpose.
I am incredibly grateful for what the faculty and staff have helped me achieve.”
Tags: COVID-19, Student Success, Lance Nelson, Journalism