Top-rated BYU professor teaches to help students succeed

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Dr. Larry Nelson engages his in an active discussion as he teaches about parent-child relationships.
Professor Larry Nelson engages his class in an active discussion as he teaches about parent-child relationships. (Maddi Dayton)

Larry Nelson considers himself an outgoing, social guy, but he’s not one to schmooze or make small talk. He avoids large group settings but loves entertaining small groups of friends. He’s not an extrovert, nor is he an introvert; he is what Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” refers to as an ambivert.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to talk about my business,” said Nelson, a professor of the School of Family Life. “I want to talk about BYU sports with somebody; I want to talk about the NBA playoffs; I want to talk about this fascinating book I just read, and networking’s not about that.”

The Princeton Review, partnered with RateMyProfessors.com, rated Nelson as one of the top 300 professors in the nation. Students know him best for his introduction to child development class, which can seat up to 250 students in the fall and winter semesters.

In such large classes, Nelson finds it difficult to convey his passion for the subject and show his care for each individual. But Daniel Durrant, an exercise science major from Mesa, Arizona, took Nelson’s class last winter and recognized his effort.

“What contributes to his success would have to be his honesty and his genuine care for the students,” Durrant said. “He doesn’t teach to get the materials covered. He teaches to help the students succeed.”

Nelson wasn’t always interested in human development. He started as a communications major his freshman year at BYU. But his mission in Switzerland changed his life’s course in more than one way. He was at the bottom of his class for speaking German in the MTC, so his teachers partnered him with the best German-speaking sister to help him improve.

She served in Germany, but they became good friends through their letters, sharing door approach and contacting techniques. On one occasion, the sister wrote Nelson a letter, asking his advice as she was frustrated over her lack of success. Nelson photocopied the letter, blotted out both their names, addressed it to her, signed his name and sent it back to her.

The two understood each other’s efforts and difficulties. However, the content of their letters never alluded to what was to come. After their missions, they dated and married. Kimberly and Larry Nelson formed a spiritual bond while serving their missions.

“I think it happened because it was founded on something different … on our spirituality versus our likes and differences,” Kimberly Nelson said.

Kimberly and Larry Nelson were both in their missions at the time the Berlin Wall fell. Kimberly was more affected, as she had just barely transferred to Hof, a town on the border of East Germany. She and her companion received the news at the church building where they were practicing the music for the Sunday service.

“One of the members came running in, ‘Sisters, sisters, why aren’t you outside? Haven’t you heard? … The wall came down, the wall came down! … you need to get out there, there’s all kinds of work that needs to be done,’” Kimberly Nelson recalled.

Kimberly Nelson’s back is slightly tilted to this day from filling her backpack with copies of The Book of Mormon.

“I would load my backpack with Book of Mormons and … hand them out like crazy because they weren’t allowed to have books,” she said. “We’d talk to them about it … and they would ask, ‘This book is for me, I can have this book?’ It was a precious thing for them.”

Larry Nelson had similar experiences in Switzerland with the fall of the Berlin Wall. He and his companion were teaching in the street when he saw something peculiar.

“I noticed a woman standing about fifteen feet away, just watching,” Nelson said. “So I finished up who I was talking to, and I went over to her and handed her a Book of Mormon and said, ‘Have you ever seen this?’ And she just held it and she said, ‘No we didn’t have opportunities like that in East Germany.”

Nelson returned to BYU after his mission and married Kimberly nine months later. They have three children: Jessica, 20; Carrie, 18; and Isaac, 9. Jessica is recently married and an open major at BYU; Carrie is a recent high school graduate, going to BYU—Idaho to study photography; and Isaac loves the outdoors. He wants to study fishing. Larry Nelson cites his children as the most influential people in his life.

“There are two titles that mean more to me than anything else, and they aren’t the letters that come with the degree — Ph.D. — or anything else,” he said. “They’re the titles of teacher and dad.”

His mission gave him the desire to teach, and after enrolling in one human development class, he knew what he wanted to teach.

“That was the thing from my mission. It instilled in me something that I didn’t have before … a thirst for knowledge. I want to read, I want to discuss, I want to learn, I want to be in the classroom where students are teaching me things,” Larry Nelson said.

Larry Nelson mentions his family every class period. Amber Hauber, an exercise science major from Magna, took his human development class and learned just as much from his personal experiences as she did from his professional work.

“I think the most valuable thing I have learned in his class is to love your children,” Hauber said. “He emphasizes that there is no greater joy than having the opportunity and the privilege to raise children of God.”

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