Her last name gives a hint into a legacy of leadership that spans the decades.
In many ways, she's following the trail left by her grandparents, former Sen. Ted Nelson and his late wife Gloria, a long-time educator and former director of Education. But in other ways, Telena Nelson is carving her own path, via her own motivation for needing change.
Nelson, 36, has been a health teacher at Southern High School before she took the plunge and ran for office last year. She's also a veteran, serving in the Guam Army National Guard for more than 15 years where she's now a captain.
"There's so much that has happened in my life within the past year, so much change," Nelson said. Nearly half her life has been spent serving in the military, a dynamic that's always changing, and one of a few factors for why she had her eyes set on the legislature.
"In the military, I started from the bottom. I started as a private. The one thing that made me become an officer is that I wanted to improve the way soldiers were treated. It was a learning process for me to lead and move up the ranks. But it was these brave soldiers that really taught me how to serve. I learned so much from my soldiers. They really supported me, they supported the mission, they supported each other. I really understood what it was to be a leader with responsibly. It's to serve first. I'm very blessed for them," Nelson explained.
For the most part, she's concentrated on that military career, reflecting on service, but also that guiding theme of change.
"I started to look at what I've done. And I thought, ‘Gosh, I haven't really done much to serve the people of Guam.’ I thought, how could I do more to effectuate change? I looked at my grandparents from both sides. They were all very giving. And me, I'm essentially living for myself, especially with all of the blessings the Lord has given me. There was a lot of challenges our island was facing. This was something I examined that, from this standpoint, as a body in the legislature, I could really effectuate change to help people," she added.
Helping people is something Nelson grew up on, the legacy her grandparents have left her, and not just political ambition.
"My grandparents never gave me the perception that they were someone in the community. I just knew that they helped people growing up, and I knew that’s what they were instilling in me,” Nelson recalled.
Her grandfather Ted served six terms in the Guam Legislature, and was well known for his fiery speeches on the session floor. Her grandmother, Gloria Borja Nelson, in addition to being a life-long educator, was also a community activist. She was one of the plaintiffs in a successful class action lawsuit that won a cost-of-living-allowance for government retirees, known as “LOLA COLA,” after Gloria’s nickname. She also served on the Consolidated Commission on Utilities, and the new GPA/GWA headquarters was named after her.
It was her grandparents who provided much of the guidance for the strong-willed Nelson. “Growing up, I was rather rebellious. I was always challenging students, challenging the school system. The only people that could really reach me were my grandparents. They took me in," she revealed.
Nelson still talks to her grandfather, "Papa," every day. He continues to help guide her through her new career. "He's always reminding me to be humble, reminding me that I'm there to serve, and helping me to understand the political realm. My Grandmommy, my mother's mother, she's always reminding me to act professionally, and to be ever vigilant in my actions and the way I react to certain situations. I live right next to her," she said.
With a solid family foundation, Nelson embraces change as the driving force in her life. "My life is full of changes, and their drastic, like being a teacher to being a public servant, a senator. I think it's for the best. For me, if something is the same for a very long time, because the world is changing around us, there's something missing. We cannot just come to a standstill and be ok with our surroundings. There's always room for improvements,” she asserted.
What drives her now in her new role as a lawmaker? “I don't take anything for granted these days. I understand that the people trusted me to represent them. Every hour of every day, it's my job to make their lives better and to work for them. We cannot leave anything to chance. My mind is always turning—what can we do, what can we do, what can we do. Question, question, question. And that's good because we have to keep on questioning and we have to keep finding solutions," Nelson said.
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