Sen. Jane Nelson ('72) learned so much during her time at UNT -- professional and personal skills that she used as a teacher for five years and a state legislator for 28.

And she has given back, fighting hard for legislation that has transformed UNT and the UNT System into leading research institutions and increased the economic power for the city of Denton with the establishment of the Denton County Transportation Authority.

Nelson will be recognized for her achievements Nov. 13 with the Presidential Medal of Honor "for improving the lives of Texans, exhibiting resolute leadership and valiantly serving nearly three decades in the Texas Legislature."

"Being recognized for my service is an honor, but to come from my own alma mater is very special," Nelson says. "It is something I will treasure forever."

Life at UNT
Jane Nelson
Jane Nelson ('72)

Nelson, who lives in Flower Mound, came to North Texas as an education major.

"I loved all of my education classes and was blessed to have wonderful professors who shared my passion for education," she says. "My very favorite professor was linguistics professor Curt Rulon, who was so interesting that I went on to take additional linguistics classes from him. He was a fabulous teacher who made language come alive."

She loved UNT for its culture as well.

"Not only did I learn so much in my classes that helped me in my profession, but I also made lifelong friends that I still get together with today. I also remember there always being a lot of great music around campus. Not surprising, given how excellent our music program is."

After graduation, Nelson became a teacher.

"My salary at the time was $7,200 a year, which happens to be the same salary I make as a state legislator," she says. "But it was a labor of love. And as it turns out, the qualities that make a good teacher also are very useful in public service. Teachers have to know how to communicate, collaborate, adapt to change, have patience and, above all else, be a good listener."

Fighting for Denton
Jane Nelson

Nelson had worked as a teacher for five years when she ran for the State Board of Education and served for two terms. She moved up the ranks when she was elected to the State Senate in 1992.

"As Chair of the Senate's Finance Committee for four sessions, I was able to watch over meeting the needs of higher education and, of course, was always keeping an eye out for UNT," she says. 

Last month, the Legislature was able to provide funding for capital building needs for the first time since 2016, with Nelson securing $113.4 million for a Science and Technology Research Building at UNT; $100 million for a new science building at UNT Dallas; and nearly $60 million for campus space optimization at UNT Health Science Center (UNTHSC) in Fort Worth.

She also helped establish the College of Pharmacy at UNTHSC, which just had its first graduating class. And she made sure the UNTHSC Center for Human Identification, the forensic crime laboratory, was funded -- helping to reduce the backlog of sexual assault kits and identify victims of human trafficking.

One of her biggest achievements was sponsoring the bill creating the Denton County Transportation Authority.

"The A-Train has connected many students to a first-class education at UNT, and that means a lot to me," she says.

Leaving a Legacy

Her achievements have extended beyond Denton.

"Becoming the first woman to chair the Senate Finance Committee and writing four consecutive state budgets -- the last one passing unanimously in a very difficult year – also are at the top of that list," she says.

She established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and has sponsored more than 30 bills to protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

The newly established Jane Nelson Women's Leadership Institute at Texas Woman's University will provide training and assistance for future leaders -- making sure her legacy will last for decades.

"I've always loved Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of success," she says. "I hope 'to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition.'"

Nelson, who is retiring from the Senate next year, adds that she's proud of her alma mater and its commitment to education.

"I was well prepared to join the workforce in education, and many of the things I learned for that profession are useful to me as a State Senator," she says. "Since graduating, it has been wonderful to see UNT soaring to new heights with so many successful degree programs. Despite the national trend for enrollment decreases, it's no wonder UNT continues to grow."

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