Communicating openly and honestly Creating an awesome work environment Giving back to the communities in which we live and work By Susie McCormick February 19, 2024

BEACON Shines Light for Nelnet Associates

Associate Resource Group Focuses on Educating and Creating Community

In a large, geographically and demographically diverse organization such as Nelnet, associate resource groups (ARGs) provide a valuable resource by helping associates connect more within the company and within their respective communities. Black Engaged Associates Connecting Nelnet (BEACON) helps Black associates and allies educate and build a sense of community at Nelnet—not just during Black History Month, but all year long.

BEACON’s mission is to create a community for Black associates and allies to connect and grow as professionals and maximize their contributions to Nelnet’s success. The ARG’s vision is “for all Black associates and allies to have a place to feel supported, collaborate, create a safe environment, and to provide resources for members to make positive contributions to Nelnet.” It’s clear that educating others and being a conduit for positive change is what drives BEACON when you talk with members and consider the group’s tagline of “Be the light!”

The Formation of BEACON

The second Nelnet ARG formed after the Young Associates Community, BEACON began in the summer of 2020. With associates being sent home to work during the pandemic and the isolation created from that, the timing couldn’t have been better for groups that encourage connection.

BEACON member Jen Thuelin emphasized the importance of authenticity and connection, saying, “BEACON, like many other ARGs, provides a safe space where individuals can be their authentic self. It also allows for diversity of thought. I really enjoy listening to stories and seeing ‘real people’. I mean that in a sincere way because being remote can seem very transactional.”

Of the group’s formation during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, BEACON Co-Chair Malaby Byrd said, “Things just work out. The timing of the event made it even more important for BEACON to exist because of the social tension created by the incident. From a standpoint of being at Nelnet, having different locations, as many people as we have, BEACON allows you continuity, to see people who look like you. There are a lot of African American agents, but not as many in leadership roles. I was able to meet people in different areas, IT, etc. It created a sense of belonging and unity, personally and professionally, to help us get through that time.”

An avenue to foster cultural competence was essential. As BEACON’s original Treasurer, now Secretary Shawanna King said, “George Floyd polarized the country because there was so much angst. It allowed for allies to be a part of our group and have a better understanding of general topics that we covered. That expanded our reach to make us inclusive of those allies that support BEACON as well.”

“The good thing about the timing of [BEACON’s formation], I think the tension within Nelnet would have been higher without the ARG. We had a lot of allies in those meetings and it was a safe place to ask questions. A lot of our discussions were polite and professional, but for a lot of the allies, it allowed them to gain some perspective: ‘Do I need to be nervous if I bring up George Floyd?’ and ‘How should I respond?’” said Byrd.

BEACON’s Areas of Focus

The ARG’s 131 members address these key areas of need. The hope is that, through the ARG’s work in these areas, BEACON’s members can thrive, but Nelnet’s culture will also be enhanced and enriched.

Social Impact: Providing opportunities to enhance Nelnet’s culture and impact the community through service projects.

Educational/Professional Development: Providing opportunities for associates to learn leadership skills that may help to enable career advancement.

Cultural Competency: Providing roundtables, forums, and presentations regarding cultural competency and how to navigate these issues.

Lighthouse Chatter: Providing a monthly informal virtual space to bring awareness and encourage conversation related to organizational and cultural topics.

BEACON members can attend whichever events they have time for. While other events and opportunities may be more difficult for some associates—like hourly or call center associates—to attend, the monthly Lighthouse Chatter is only a half-hour long, making it easier for anyone to participate.

Carmona Bessee, who manages communications for BEACON, said, “Even through our Lighthouse Chatters, which are a little bit lighter, we try to incorporate a lot of quizzes and games just to add a little bit of education. It’s always a learning opportunity, some type of engagement.” Members are surveyed after each event to help provide feedback that helps to shape future planning.

With Nelnet’s core value of giving back to the communities where we live and work, there’s also support for BEACON’s goal of making a social impact through service projects.

Toni Monette and Aisha Smith are former Nelnet associates who were significant BEACON speakers that members appreciated working with and then hearing from at events. Byrd said Judge Cynthia C. Adams of Douglas County Superior Court in Georgia was a 2023 speaker who transparently shared her journey and nuggets related to the value of faith, family, and relationships in her quest for growth. Many were inspired by her words! In 2024, a speaker for the group will be Kaci Easley, who was selected to be the first African American woman to manage the Virginia governor’s mansion and is an attorney who has done work in the corporate and political sectors as well.

“With Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Black History Month, and then Juneteenth, these are all educational opportunities to build cultural competence through the lens of BEACON,” said Nycci Jones, BEACON member and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Nelnet. While educating other Nelnet associates, the group also educates themselves. As original BEACON Secretary, now Co-Chair Candace Quarells pointed out, “Even within our board, members are always learning stuff. I didn’t know until last year or two years ago about Black History Month having a theme.”

The group held events for Kwanzaa and Ramadan last year. Bessee noted, “Our Ramadan Lighthouse Chatter event brought awareness. People asked questions and had no idea there were Muslims in our group, and it helped others to be comfortable. Sometimes we get a request to do a Part Two if there’s a topic we need more time to uncover.” The group noted that their Lighthouse Chatter on cultural appropriation—a collaboration with the Unidos ARG—will also require a second session because there was more to discuss.

As Jones explained, all of Nelnet’s ARGs have a three-year maximum time limit for board members. With many of BEACON’s board members starting with the ARG, some of the leadership is now changing. The changeover includes a succession plan that begins with members identifying people from the ARG who can fill their shoes or doing a larger callout. Once nominations are made, there are interviews with the Better Together Executive Council, feedback from leaders, and voting by the ARG before new leadership is put in place.

All ARG board members must take leadership courses, providing additional professional development. BEACON offers a community for members, but also valuable leadership development that can benefit members in their Nelnet careers for those who wish to serve within BEACON and the larger Better Together Council.

What Members Say About BEACON

Original BEACON Secretary Shawanna King said, “BEACON helps associates find community by fostering engagement, enhancing cultural competence, and by providing opportunities for group members to connect in a safe space via Teams, Lighthouse Chatter, and bi-monthly meetings. We also participate in collaborative events with other ARGs, which broadens our community!”

As Bessee noted, “BEACON creates the path and makes it easier for me to collaborate with my peers on several topics. They have established a comfort zone and are always supportive. They provide a safe environment to speak freely on a topic and always make learning fun.”

Quarells emphasized what the group strives for: “We like to foster an open, honest, and friendly atmosphere where associates feel comfortable interacting with one another. We encourage team-building and social events—especially during the holidays, or celebrations. We also like to support volunteer and charity events for associates to engage in volunteer activities.”

Byrd summarized it succinctly: “BEACON is a resource and a safe place for members and allies to get information and share their experiences as they relate to diversity.” Ally Kathryn Fox reinforced that message, saying, “For me, it helps me find alternate perspectives and educates me on their experiences.”

BEACON leadership’s success in achieving these goals is apparent in what members say. “They provide associates the honor to voice their ideas and opinions, creating an all-inclusive approach and considering every voice, no matter what,” said Candice Gayle. “BEACON is always open to new approaches in community building among associates.”

As BEACON member Courtney Youssef pointed out, “I enjoy BEACON because it’s clear that its purpose is education and community—the group is so accepting and I’ve learned so much by joining and attending the meetings.” She added, “ARGs also give people an easy path to support others in communities outside of their own, and to learn about different experiences.”

BEACON member Linda Miller put it this way: “BEACON speaks that each is important and has something they can contribute—to speak up, to stand up, to come together, and let love lead the way in making the world a better place, and making Nelnet an awesome place to work.”

While Kent Wolfe called BEACON “a collection of people who find support among those with common cultural interests,” those common interests center around understanding one another. It’s clear that not all members have had the same experiences—and that’s to be expected in a group that welcomes Black associates and allies.

BEACON members and allies Kelly Fushia and Jensyn Clark both appreciate and enjoy relationships and discussions as part of the group. Said Fushia: “I always love how I feel after attending a BEACON meeting because I do feel a part of a community. As a white, straight woman, I enjoy and appreciate knowing and having relationships with people who have different life experiences than me. I learn so much from others, and I’m sure I get more from BEACON than I give.”

Clark enthusiastically added, “ I love BEACON because the discussions are always so good and the committee members are so fun and insightful! I’m either laughing, learning, or both! It’s always a good day when I have the time to get to a BEACON event.”

One of the group’s newer Nelnet associates, new BEACON Co-Chair Joe Brown said he’s been experiencing “a total culture shock in a good way,” never having seen specialized resource groups at public, corporate, or family-owned businesses where he’s been employed. “BEACON helps associates find community by utilizing open communication channels, celebrating achievements, engaging in community service initiatives, and contributing to a positive and supportive environment. Continuous feedback mechanisms and collaboration with other associate resource groups enhance Nelnet’s overall sense of community.”

Byrd, whose wife is a diversity specialist, said that companies often pay for outside consultants to evaluate and create a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan which often doesn’t get enforced. He added, “Nelnet’s approach to growing diversity, equity, and inclusion internally and organically is probably a big reason for its success.”

Jones summed it up: “Our culture is rich, and about creating an awesome place to work. Our business objective is to highly engage and retain top talent. By connecting to these organizational goals and to the core values, that’s what these ARGs are doing. We’re also creating a space for allies to come and learn more, whether coming into BEACON or through BEACON’s outreach. Our C-suite, without a doubt, supports and backs everything we do from a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective.”

Jones explained why it all works: “The passion work of these associates allows us to engage top talent because going to work is more than just going to work. It’s about networking, especially in a remote environment that we’re in today. BEACON has successfully embodied its mission and vision statements by establishing a community where Black associates and allies can connect and advance professionally, enhancing their impact on Nelnet’s success.”

BEACON Members: What Black History Month Means to Me

According to Byrd, “Black History Month means that we can start or continue to increase our knowledge of the contributions of Black Americans. There is enough history to learn something new on a daily basis.” To that end, BEACON provides an ongoing resource for Nelnet associates who are interested in learning more about the contributions of Black Americans or understanding the perspectives of Black associates.

Thuelin pointed out that Black History Month “is an opportunity for me to reflect on history and learn about the past, present, and hopefully a better future.” She wasn’t alone in looking toward the future. Fushia added, “It’s also a time to reflect on the current state of race relations in the U.S. and recognize advances we’ve made and advances needed.”

“To me,” said Jones, “Black History Month means honoring the significant roles and contributions Black people have played throughout history in areas such as culture, science, politics, and social justice. Black History Month serves as a time to reflect on and appreciate the struggles and triumphs of the Black community, as well as to promote awareness and understanding of Black history and heritage.”

At Nelnet, BEACON intends to keep effectively promoting that awareness and understanding—and empowering Black associates and allies—for the foreseeable future.




Susie McCormick

Senior Corporate Communications Writer