“Sorry, I was lighting a cigar.”
Otha Curis Nelson III—he goes by Tre—coughs, assumedly from the smoke. He’s home for the week of Thanksgiving in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and managed to find the time to schedule in a phone call.
It is 10 a.m. on the Monday before, and he’s starting his day with a mimosa in addition to his cigar. He’s as happy as can be.
After graduating Northwestern State University Scholars’ College in May 2018 with a Liberal Arts degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Nelson went on to work for Sigma Nu Fraternity’s national organization. He serves as a Southeast Leadership Consultant, with a particular focus on recruiting and branding.
The new job has brought him all over the southeastern United States, from Oxford, Mississippi to Athens, Georgia, to Washington, D.C. Perhaps it’s just the time off from work or the being back home, but today Nelson doesn’t seem too keen on talking about his job. His mind is still on NSU, as well as his career goals down the line—where he’s going and where he’s been.
Becoming a Demon
“I picked NSU because of my mentor, honestly, Mr. Ted Jones,” says Nelson. Jones is an NSU alumni who eventually became a lobbyist, “influencing politics and a lot of Louisiana government.” When he first visited NSU, Nelson liked the campus, but wasn’t sold on pursuing his degree there.
“Mr. Ted really sold me on the opportunities that they have at the school,” says Nelson. “He really sold me on the family values there.
“And let me tell you something, man,” Nelson says, audibly getting more excited. “I have zero regrets about my time at NSU. I’ve been so fortunate and blessed to be able to go to that school.”
Nelson served in a number of roles on campus during his time here, from Mr. NSU to president of the Student Government Association to president of the Mu Rho Chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity. He even served as a Freshman Connector the summer between his freshman and sophomore years; he was the leader of the team I was assigned to in the summer of 2015.
“I was a nobody when I came to NSU,” Nelson says. “I said, ‘You know what? When I make a name for myself at this school, I’m going to make it better for the next guy who comes through who feels like a nobody.’ That was one of my main goals.”
Nelson says he truly felt that this goal came to life when he was visited by a younger student who told him he looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps. And that student wasn’t the only one impressed with Nelson’s leadership.
“I feel that Tre opened doors for students that normally would not have certain opportunities,” says sitting SGA President Jacob Ellis, Nelson’s successor. “He always made sure to listen to what students had to say.”
But Nelson isn’t oblivious to the very real struggles that exist on campus. The conversation soon took a surprising turn from NSU’s exceptionalism to NSU’s elephant in the room.
“There’s a very interesting cultural dynamic at NSU,” Nelson says, beginning his TED Talk. He notes the university’s diverse array of students who came from all over the Southwest: from the rural small towns of north Louisiana to the city folk of Baton Rouge, New Orleans or even Dallas. “You have all these people coming together, but as a result, I think there’s a disconnect between the black community and the white community and some of the different organizations on campus.
“And this year’s homecoming elections were a perfect example of some of the ramifications of having a disconnected community.”
Use Your Voice
For both the homecoming king and queen elections and the Mr. and Miss NSU elections, a black man and a white woman were elected: Char’Tarian Wilson and Rebekah Aultman, and Antavious Roberts and Mallory McConathy, respectively. Roberts won after a run-off election with Freshman Connector and Kappa Sigma Fraternity member Rowdy Burleson.
While no one I interviewed accused anyone else of racism in the elections, there was an acknowledgment of such accusations floating around campus.
“I think everyone who was elected on the homecoming court or Mr. or Mrs. NSU were well-deserving demons,” Homecoming Queen Rebekah Aultman says. “We have to create the culture we want to last. It’s up to us as students. We can’t control what other people say or do, but how we as individuals react can create those small changes that lead to a bigger change.”
Ellis echoed that sentiment.
“The best tool that we have to have is our voices,” Ellis says. “We as a student body need to come together, lift each other up, and listen to one another.”
Nelson noted the importance of building the bridges that make such university-wide unity possible.
“People interact with each other, but you’d be a fool to say different organizations aren’t divided,” Nelson says. “As a result, there’s this lack of understanding that creates this Us vs. Them mentality.
“If I could change one thing—and this is something I want to continue to work on from the alumni perspective—it’s that I want to bring the black and white communities together more on campus.”
Nelson noted a recent party that was thrown by Sigma Nu in conjunction with Alpha Phi Alpha as a step in the right direction.
“Some can say a party is trivial, but it had a lasting impact,” Nelson says. “The possibilities are endless.”
Endless, indeed, are the possibilities for Nelson’s future. Ted Jones is still a mentor, as lobbying is something Nelson is looking at potentially getting into after acquiring an M.B.A. in finance and investment. Other options include opening up an investment company or running for public office.
“Opportunities are literally falling out of the sky. You’ve just got to have your bag packed,” Nelson says. “Honestly, I just want to help people accomplish their goals.”
Nelson is certainly accomplishing his.
Corrections: A previous version of this article asserted that “Tre” was Nelson’s middle name; it’s a nickname. Miss NSU was also mistakenly referred to as “Mrs. NSU.” We apologize for the errors.