“I’ve heard people say, ‘People with advanced degrees—master’s or doctorate degrees—are not necessarily the smartest people. But rather, people who have the most perseverance.’”

Marina Harris-Hardaway, B.S.N. ’17, embodies that philosophy.

Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, Harris-Hardaway moved to Quincy 21 years ago at just 19 years old. She left her family, sister, and parents and came by herself to start a new life.

“I started my education in Ukraine, studying linguistics—English, Ukrainian and Russian. But I always knew I wanted to come to the US—it was my number one priority.”

When she finally got to Quincy, the first job she found was as a CNA, a certified nursing assistant.

Before arriving in Illinois, Harris-Hardaway had studied in England for a year, and worked as an English-Russian interpreter in Ukraine. She would stand in front of the class, translating sentence by sentence.

Marina Harris-Hardaway Interpreter

Marina Harris-Hardaway as an interpreter

“I loved it. I met all kinds of good people, and really enjoyed the work.” She added with a laugh, “But who needs English-Russian translation in Quincy, Illinois?”

Ukraine requires all high school students to take math, biology, and chemistry. Harris-Hardaway always got good grades, and so felt ready to get certified as a CNA.

Little did she know that by doing so, she was lighting a fire that would catch and burn, becoming a life-long journey into the world of healthcare.

Taking the winding road

“I worked 24 hours every weekend as a CNA while working on my print journalism degree at Western Illinois University,” Harris-Hardaway said. “Along the way, I met nurses, and a lot of them said, ‘Why don’t you become a nurse?’”

She smiles.

“My grandmother was actually a nurse in World War II. She served on the frontlines, but never talked about it much, and never advised nursing as an occupation. And at home, I was always a liberal arts person. I was already on the language track.”

After graduation, Harris-Hardaway moved to Peoria and got a job as the editor of the Washington Times-Reporter, a local weekly newspaper. But she kept working as a CNA on the side. After the birth of her third child, she took five years away from working to be a full-time mom.

“I came back to work right after the economy crashed, and realized the newsroom had become a ghost room.”

Harris-Hardaway started evaluating her options, and again, there was nursing. She ended up at Illinois Central College (ICC) working on her LPN (licensed practical nurse).

“They encouraged me right away to go for my RN, but I had small children,” Harris-Hardaway said. “I never planned to continue studying long term with children. I had always wanted my master’s degree, but motherhood was my priority.”

A lover of learning

However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the LPN wasn’t enough for Harris-Hardaway. “I bridged to my RN as soon as I could. That LPN program set the stage for everything that came after.”

After earning her RN, she wanted to try something new, so she went into pediatric home health. She spent more than two years working with a student at Thomas Jefferson Primary School in Peoria, in a special unit for children with mental and physical conditions.

Marina Harris-Hardaway Graduation

Marina Harris-Hardaway

“Most people don’t even know about it, but it’s a really incredible place,” Harris-Hardaway said. “Students are bused in from all over the area.”

That’s when Harris-Hardaway started thinking seriously about getting her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

“I had been thinking about it all along, honestly. While still earning my LPN, I called Melissa Moody at Illinois State for advising, and she was great—good advising really means a lot.”

Additionally, some of Harris-Hardaway’s teachers at ICC had graduated from Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN). She kept thinking to herself, “Illinois State is local … affordable … the RN to BSN program is online.’ But, she was married, had three teenagers, and a job. It was a lot to balance.

She went for it anyway.

MCN: The right choice for Her

“I feel like I made the right choice. I took the part-time route. Jamie Penrod did the orientation, and ended up being one of the best professors in the program. The program is online, but Jamie transcends the platform—you feel like she is right there with you. I really enjoyed meeting nurses from all kinds of settings. At ISU you have classmates working in virtually any setting, who live all the way from Chicago to down in Southern Illinois.”

But most of all, Harris-Hardaway enjoyed learning.

“Being a journalist in the past, I look for information. I don’t like to be in stagnation mode. I like getting out of the ordinary, accepting new challenges, learning new things, getting new information. My classes were a venue for me to speak and be heard.”

At long last, her master’s degree

Harris-Hardaway knew from almost her first day in MCN’s RN to BSN program that she wanted to continue on and earn her master’s degree in nursing. But when she first looked into MCN’s nursing systems administration program, she was a bit intimidated. According to the website, she would have to find her own preceptor, and on paper that didn’t look very appealing. The program also appeared narrow in scope and Harris-Hardaway was not sure if it would be useful for teaching nursing at a college level—something she long ago set her mind to do.

“But, I called and talked to advisors and faculty. I asked if I could do my contact hours in an educational setting. They said, ‘You can use this program for teaching, you can use it for management, you can use it as a practitioner in the office.’”

And that’s the beauty of MCN’s nursing systems administration (NSA) master’s program: It’s flexible. It teaches you a variety of skills that are applicable in a wide range of settings, like informatics, finance, management, leadership, and organizational skills.

“The NSA is not a program that’s totally spelled out and dictated to you. As an adult learner, you get to make decisions and pick some of the things you want to learn. You can set up your own objectives and seek out learning opportunities appropriate to your goals. You have to get them approved, of course. But you get to work with the people who will really help you the most, encourage you, and help you grow. That’s what I feel so blessed with—I have advocates that help me grow.”

Harris-Hardaway chose to precept with her former LPN instructor who taught and molded her from her earliest days of nursing. Today Harris-Hardaway also teaches as adjunct clinical faculty alongside her former professors—in the very program from which she once graduated.

“As someone who committed so many years of my life to lifetime learning, I am excited to share my experience and passion with students. It’s very motivating to see students break so many obstacles and barriers to succeed. In the end, it is not about my degree. It’s about everything I’ve learned in the process, giving back and investing in others.”

Mother, wife, student, graduate assistant, teacher, care provider

Now, Harris-Hardaway is a mother, wife, student, graduate assistant in MCN’s Nursing Simulation Lab, an adjunct faculty member at ICC, and working weekly shifts in pediatric home health.

And still, the NSA program is manageable. How, you ask?Marina Harris-Hardaway with children.

“I try to work ahead. I do things when I have time or when I have that burst of energy, so that when I’m tired or sick or an emergency happens, I don’t have to struggle to do it last minute. I do not like having to work last minute. Working ahead relieves stress, and keeps me feeling like it’s not so much on my plate.”

When asked her advice to persons considering continuing their education, she is adamant.

“If you are thinking about continuing your education, do it soon. Because before you know it, life moves on. Time passes, and you’re older than you were, with more responsibilities, and things are much harder then.”

But, she reminds us that you never know where you will end up.

“Keep an open mind. If we push ourselves just a little bit more, we find out we have a little bit more resilience than we thought we had, and we’re stronger than we think we are. Never let go of ‘What if?’ You will learn all these things about yourself that you never even knew were there.”

When asked if she sees a Ph.D. in her future?

Harris-Hardaway smiles. She would love to get there.

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