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Memories of SSU

Sue A. Thomas

Professor of Nursing, 1972-1999

Professor Mary Searight

Professor Mary Searight

Our Early Days in the Department of Nursing

            One of the major innovative nursing curriculum models in the U.S. in the early 1970s was the development of our RN-BSN program at Sonoma State, the first of its kind in the nation. Based on the mobilization of community support through the efforts of two local groups in Sonoma County, the California Nurses Association Nursing Education Committee and a community-based advisory group, ideas emerged for upper division baccalaureate nursing education of RNs. The program was designed to include a major focus on community and public health nursing as well as the senior preceptorship clinical model.

            Mary Searight, RN, MS was appointed to serve as the first chairperson for the new Department of Nursing. She was visionary in her very important role as the first chair, and worked in a very effective, collaborative way with the broader health community in procuring their support. Lucy Kortum was our first office manager, and her outstanding abilities in working with faculty and students were greatly appreciated.

            The development of our nursing program began with the idea that upper division nursing education, leading to a baccalaureate degree, could be built on associate degree or diploma preparation in a way that would be educationally appropriate and creative. Awarding credit for lower division course work completed by RNs at community colleges was granted after considerable negotiation at Sonoma State University (SSU), as well as granting associate degree equivalencies for diploma graduates through the community college. Ken Stocking, Yvette Fallandy and Wes Ebert played very important roles in promoting the idea of a nursing program through various college committees. The RN/BSN model became the first of its type in the country, one that created considerable discussion throughout the U.S. as to whether it was educationally sound.

            In August 1972, the first nursing faculty members were hired to develop the curriculum, and begin the first classes in September of that same year. I was one of the first faculty members hired and served as the community health nursing (CHN) coordinator. Initially, I received a call from Mary Searight, who asked me if I would consider applying for a full-time/tenure track position at Sonoma State. I was told that Sonoma State was beginning a new program. I decided to apply for the position since it sounded creative and exciting. I was asked to serve as the CHN coordinator. When I visited the campus for the interview I thought this would be a challenge! So, I accepted the position and enjoyed the challenge, the faculty and the excitement of contributing to the development of a new nursing curriculum model.

            We began our program with seven new faculty members, all with different backgrounds, knowledge and skills—community/public health nursing, maternal-child health, nurse midwifery, community mental health nursing, medical-surgical nursing and administrative experience. Initially, as faculty, when we came together in 1972, we had one month to develop the curriculum, with the freedom to develop our courses in our own way. We were at various times overwhelmed with all of the work that had to be done to create our courses in such a short time. We developed a good working relationship with each other and were able to discuss our commonalties and differences effectively. We had group meetings to discuss our issues, explore our feelings and think things through to enhance clarity. For many years to come, I enjoyed working with Vivian Malmstrom, Laurel Freed, Jan Hitchcock and Rose Murray, all of whom were founding faculty members.

            Our first class of students in 1972 had an average age of 35 years, and resided primarily in the university service area, which included Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Solano and Napa counties. The students were varied in their work experience with some coming directly from associate degree programs and some having worked more than 20 years in a variety of settings, primarily hospitals. Our first group of students definitely were risk-takers, entering a program that was new, not yet accredited by our National League for Nursing (NLN), and innovative. Because of the nature of our student population, the strategies for teaching students therefore focused on adult learning.

            Those beginning years of our nursing department required collaboration, courage, compassion, confidence in our ability to work effectively together, respect for each other’s ideas and feelings, patience through the difficult growing process and commitment to developing a program that would be accredited by the NLN for our first graduating class of 1974. In other words, we worked consistently to develop curriculum designed for adult learners and to model caring behaviors with our students. Because of our efforts in developing curriculum, we were granted accreditation by the NLN in 1974, in time for our first graduation class. How excited we all were to have accomplished our goal! In fact, at the graduation of our first nursing students, as they walked out after the graduation ceremony, I remember how we, the nursing faculty, showered them with rose petals, celebrating both their accomplishments and ours!

            At the 30th year celebration of our Department of Nursing in 2004, many alumni from our first class were in attendance. In addition, Vivian Malmstrom, one of our outstanding faculty members, had come down from Bend, Oregon to participate in the reunion. What a great time we had sharing wonderful memories at SSU.