Faculty Matters: Sonia Cunningham
Educated at Lehman College of the City University of New York, Sonia teaches students for whom Spanish is typically the first language spoken in the home. Most are the first in their families to attend college, and many have never ventured out of the Rio Grande Valley. With an average age of 29 years, most of Sonia's students have families and multiple obligations.
In the fall, Sonia teaches Transition to Professional Nursing, which is the first course of the sequence that takes LPN/LVNs to the registered professional level. In the spring, she teaches two courses in the second level of the program, Community-Based Nursing and a clinical for Medical-Surgical Nursing. She also teaches Psychosocial Nursing and Nursing Care of Childbearing Families.
Sonia believes strongly that the enrichment and independent developmental activities that are integral to baccalaureate education must be part of associate degree education. In assessing the needs of her students, she realized early on that many needed help communicating clearly in writing. At first, she included two traditional research writing assignments in all her classes. Later, after attending a workshop conducted by Dr. Richard Paul of Sonoma College in California, she started to assign several short papers each semester. "I found this method ideal for my teaching style and the student population entrusted to me. With each assignment, I was able to offer suggestions for improvement, which could be incorporated in the next paper. This was incredibly beneficial in developing writing proficiency and the ability to communicate effectively."
Soon Sonia began to require her students to prepare portfolios of work produced during the semester. "I presented the best for peer review at two national conferences. Showcasing the work of associate degree students at national conferences - and receiving good reviews from my peers - validated my belief that AD students can, and will, produce when they are required to do so."
Using portfolios to showcase students' work has had several benefits. While helping develop skills important to education as well as professional practice -- writing, time management, organization, and presentation of the product - the portfolio rewards industrious students. "Students are eager to present and include their best efforts. The product speaks for itself and helps students make the case for an improved grade."
Portfolios start with an activity that Sonia calls the "Puzzler." Students are given lists of words selected to enrich and develop their general knowledge of music, art, geography, history, and literature. They must develop or "solve" these words in any way they choose using basic research skills. Responses are neither right nor wrong. Sonia considers this exercise an ideal way to prepare students to find answers and develop solutions once they enter the world of work. "I am always pleasantly surprised at the results of the students' research. This is the principle of learning by doing, which is fundamental to vocational and adult education."
In 1998, Sonia was selected to attend the Children's Hospital Medical Center/ University of Cincinnati Summer Institute for Nursing Faculty, "Exploring the Impact of Human Genetics in Nursing Education and Practice." The majority of participants represented baccalaureate and master's level programs, and a few represented doctoral programs. Sonia, feeling strongly that educators must meet their student populations "where they are" and enable and facilitate their mobility to the next level, desired to introduce her students "to every appropriate educational opportunity."
In 2000, she was invited to be a member of the Expert Panel on Genetics and Nursing: Implication for Education and Practice. Only two of the 21 members of the panel taught at the AD level. "I was pleased to have been selected, but I was aware that I represented a minority position and realized that I had an even greater responsibility. …