In college, she was the only woman taking calculus when a classmate pulled her aside and said she needed to drop the class "because you're taking one of the A's away from us, and we need that to get into the engineering program."
"And I told them, 'You better study harder because I'm not going anywhere,'" Nancy Nilsen said.
Later, she was asked to clean the kitchen at her workplace, "like all the other women do."
Again, she drew on all the encouragement she had received throughout her life and pushed back.
"I had to stand up for myself over the years, because a lot of times I was the first female to do a lot of things," said Nilsen, 59.
Now she's the first woman to be the St. Louis County Auditor-Treasurer.
The News Tribune sat down with Nilsen last week to learn more about what she's bringing to the office she won in November's election.
How has the first week been?
Very busy. Between getting sworn in last Thursday, I had the board meeting on Tuesday - I ran that meeting - and we've got an election that we've got to take care of already. So yeah, it's been a very busy week, but interesting.
You're the county's top accountant, tax collector, elections czar, clerk of the board, licensing center operator - what am I forgetting?
Auditing - internal and external auditing that we take care of with the state.
And how do you manage all of that?
We have very good, excellent staff members that I work with. Over the years, I've hired nearly every one of them, and made sure they've all been trained in well. I have a deputy, a manager in each one of those areas.
You started as Don Dicklich's chief deputy auditor 11 years ago. What made you decide to run when he decided to retire?
I was pretty much doing a lot of the job already. And I have a Masters in Business Administration, and I pretty much know everything that's going on here; it just made sense as a perfect move for me.
We worked very closely together in the past, and we have very similar styles and knowledge and background - so that makes a difference when you're coming from the same perspective.
County commissioners lauded your predecessor for leaving the county's finances in great shape. What can you do to protect and strengthen that legacy?
There is a list of things that they require you to do in order to be able to go for different ratings. We met all of those requirements (for AA+) and, of course, we'll continue to meet those requirements.
I don't know if we'll be able to go to the next step (AAA), because they've told us they're pretty stringent, but one requirement was to do a five-year budget. And so we started that last year.
It's basically paying attention to what the key points are as to what they're looking for, and making sure that we're maintaining an environment that allows us to get those key points.
When it comes to policy making, how do you plan to keep commissioners on the right track when they make financial decisions?
It's really just getting them to make sure they understand that that's the way we're going to operate and continue down the same path. We've got some very strong commissioners in the finance area. I think they're all enjoying the idea that this is where we're at, in the bond ratings that we've been able to get and the rates. And then we don't have to raise taxes.
With a special election, city elections, and then 2020 pretty much already here, what can your office do to ensure fair and accessible elections?
This is a key part of our office here. We feel it's very important that we make it easy for people to be able to vote. We're finding people using a lot more absentee ballots, which is more work for us here. But for people to be able to ask for their ballot to be mailed to them, or to come in and vote on the day that they're able to come in and vote - I see that increasing.
We have this special election (Senate District 11 DFL primary) that's coming up, Jan. 22, and we need to be open for absentee voting the day before. Well, that's Martin Luther King Day - normally we would be closed, but we're going to be open.
Whatever needs to be done, that's what we're going to do. ... We're always looking for something that we can do to improve.
What else do you want to accomplish in the next four years?
What's key for us here is taking a look at the different processes that are taking place, and how can we make it more efficient. My background is in IT, and I installed software for many years. We've got a few projects on our plate.
We've got a new type of scheduling application that we're installing; we've got an accounts payable system we're putting in right now that's going to allow for paperless; we've got a cashier system we'd like to be able to put out to a few different places.
You ran against another member of the staff here, deputy auditor and tax division manager Brandon Larson. Can we expect a good, professional relationship moving forward?
Definitely - we talked early on, and said both of us are going to be working here, you know, one way or the other, right? In any kind of position where you're looking for a promotion there's going to be people that are going to apply from within the department. And you just have to make sure everything is amicable. We have a good relationship.
Any parting words for your constituents?
We're just really looking forward to serving the community.
St. Louis County Auditor-Treasurer Nancy Nilsen's office can be reached at (218) 726-2380 or (218) 749-7104 in Virginia.