Perseverance pays off
School of Nursing’s new dean details the challenges – and joys – of her career journey
By Rosanne Fohn
Sonya R. Hardin, PhD, MBA/MHA, APRN, FAAN, frequently tells her first-generation nursing students she knows that one day they could stand where she is, as dean of a well-respected nursing school. That’s because she was not only a first-generation college student herself, but also a first-generation high school graduate.
Poverty was the norm in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina where Hardin grew up, where residents valued nature, independence, privacy and family ties. Many men worked in farming or the trade industries. Most women stayed home to raise their children, although some had a small business, worked in offices or taught school.
“My father was one of 12 boys in his family. They were all trained on the job as electricians by my grandfather,” Hardin said. Her father attended school through seventh grade, but her mother continued to eighth grade. “And she enjoyed lording it over him,” the dean smiled. Her mother was a homemaker until thev early 1970s, when she went to a local community college and got her GED, then attended school for one year to become a licensed vocational nurse.
When Hardin was in the second and third grades, her family lived with her grandmother to cut costs.
“When you needed something, you didn’t just go out and buy it,” she explained. “If you needed clothes, my grandmother would go to the store and buy the cloth and make it.”
Likewise, Hardin recounted that the first photograph of her that she can recall is the one from her high school yearbook.
“Cameras were considered a luxury,” she said, so there are no photos of her as a child.
Inspiration and persuasion
Despite the regional poverty and lack of opportunity, Hardin was encouraged by her second-grade teacher, Ms. Hill, to take advantage of educational opportunities.
“She was always positive and encouraged students to get their education, which at that time meant getting through high school.”
When considering her future, Hardin was inspired most by her great-grandmother to choose the field of nursing.
“She was a healer in the Appalachian Mountains, and people would come from miles around to have her lay her hands on them and read specific verses from the Bible. I have her Bible, as it was passed down to my mother and then to me. The pages are worn where she read specific passages,” she said.
“While I was in high school, my dad asked, ‘Do you want to be a nurse or a teacher?’ I was good in science and enjoyed talking with people. I said, ‘I think nursing would be best,’” Hardin said.
In addition to her love of science, Hardin also had to be persuasive to follow her dreams.
“My brother and I had one car to share. I was accepted into a certain college, and he had applied there but was not accepted. I had to convince him to talk with the administration to see if they would reconsider accepting him because I needed that car to get to my classes,” she said. “And it’s a good thing he did,” she joked, noting that after completing his education he now has a high-paying career in accounting.
A commitment to scholarship
These early experiences with poverty and educational challenges shaped Hardin’s current philosophy of nursing education.
“Education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you, and it allows you to have a job to support yourself and family. In many ways it is the route to move individuals out of poverty,” she explained. Once in college, Hardin continued to work hard. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
During her first year in college, Hardin was struck by the brilliance of a psychology teacher, and that got her interested in becoming a professor. So, while starting her career as a critical care staff nurse, she also began her academic career at Lenoir-Rhyne College, now Lenoir-Rhyne University, in Hickory, North Carolina.
Less than 10 years later, while earning her PhD at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, she met former UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing Dean Eileen Breslin, PhD, RN, FAAN, who also was earning her PhD. Breslin recalled Hardin was such a dedicated student that she made it a point to invite Hardin to take a break. Hardin remembers it the same way.
“Yes, she was always saying that I needed to get out more,” Hardin said.
Hardin’s dedication to scholarship paid off, however. Her dissertation, “Let the Circle Be Unbroken: Health of Elderly Southern Appalachian Widows,” won the Sigma Theta Tau International Region 7 Dissertation Award as being exceptionally meritorious. Hardin followed her PhD with an MBA/MHA and became a nurse practitioner.
“All of my degrees came through financial support external to myself,” she added. “I would not be here today if I had not had help. In undergraduate school I had Pell grants, in graduate school I had scholarships, and my PhD was paid for through the federal government, which offered tuition if you would teach two years after graduation.”
“Dr. Hardin has had a distinguished career touching all aspects of academic nursing including working in administrative and leadership positions on the inpatient, outpatient and academic sides of health care. She is a principled leader who builds collaboration and consensus while establishing priorities to help institutions achieve their strategic vision.”
— President William L. Henrich, MD, MACP, in welcoming Dean Hardin to UT Health San Antonio in June 2022
Focused on the future
Hardin said two major goals she has for the School of Nursing are to address the nursing shortage by increasing enrollment in all academic programs and to continue to focus on community engagement.
“Having been a hospital nurse myself, I feel it is imperative for the School of Nursing to produce as many BSN nurses as possible to care for patients at the bedside,” she said. “Without nurses, health outcomes will be poor for a state’s citizens. In the School of Nursing, we have increased enrollment overall by approximately 50 students over the last year, but to increase it more, we will need funds to hire more faculty and staff.”
Regarding community engagement, Hardin said, “Our school is dedicated to providing care as an act of social justice. For this reason, we have a strong desire for community engagement through such programs as street nursing and our Caring for the Caregiver program. It is through engagement and research that we are able to make a difference in the lives of San Antonio citizens.”
Hardin’s own interest in critical care and geriatric nursing was influenced by caring for her mother in older age.
“I was a caregiver for six years, shepherding over my mother, which continues to inspire me to help this community through our Caring for the Caregiver program,” she said.
Here to help students
Hardin’s many accomplishments in the face of numerous challenges are testament to her spirit of perseverance and to the help she received along the way. Because of her own challenges, Hardin is quick to encourage the 37% of School of Nursing students who are first-time college students to take advantage of the Office of Student Success programs that include tutoring, mentoring and leadership opportunities.
“I always tell students that if they are having any kind of struggle, from financial to day care, to please talk with the faculty,” she said. “Our faculty can point them to resources that are available to help them get through school.”