Sandra Ola Hardy survived one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, a battle with breast cancer and another with colon cancer. Attending college in her 60s, and graduating from Thomas Nelson at the age of 70, did not intimidate her.
“No, I was excited about going back. I was looking forward to it,” she said about two months after receiving an associate degree in Human Services. “It was something I always wanted to do. I always wanted my degree.”
For Hardy, deciding on Human Services was the logical choice. She said throughout her life she’s always counseled, motivated and encouraged people of all ages.
“I wanted to be certified. I wanted a degree in Human Services because this has been something I’ve been doing for years,” she said. “I would direct people to different programs. I was doing the job of a social worker and didn’t have a degree to back me up.”
Since moving to Hampton Roads from Louisiana to be closer to a sister after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hardy has been an employment specialist and counselor for two grass-roots programs in the area.
“That’s always been me, or my passion or my plight,” she said of human services and helping others.
She first enrolled at Thomas Nelson just a few years after moving to Hampton, but that lasted a semester before trying again in 2014. She did take off for three semesters the second time because of health issues.
“It’s been a journey,” she said.
She was born in North Carolina, but moved to Philadelphia in 1955, where she grew up and attended high school. She attended Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center after high school. Eventually, she moved to Louisiana in 1991, where her twin sons were stationed in the Navy and where another sister lived. That also is where she attended Delgado Community College for a couple of semesters.
“When I left Philly … it was cold and dreary and gray. When I got to New Orleans, it was sunny, (with) palm trees. I thought I had stepped into another dimension,” she said.
She was there until shortly after the hurricane, but truth be told, she was ready to leave Louisiana a few years earlier to be closer to family and friends in Philadelphia.
Once here, her sister and friends told her about Thomas Nelson, and she initially thought her dream job would be to work with abused women. However, as part of her course work, she did an internship with a Hampton Roads program that is an alternative to suspension for high school students. Among her duties were assisting students with creating resumes, learning computer skills and navigating the job market.
“To my surprise, I loved it,” she said. “I loved the interaction with the students.”
And they loved her. After she completed her 100 hours, her supervisor asked her to stay on part time because so many students “kept asking for Miss Hardy.” However, her job was a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, but she hopes to get rehired there soon because it’s such a good fit.
She figures with the knowledge, motherly love and experiences she can impart on today’s youth, maybe “we can catch them a little bit so they can avoid suspension.”
The mother of twin sons (both with doctorate degrees), grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of two at one time didn’t think she could handle the rigors of college. But at Thomas Nelson, she was invited to join multiple honor societies.
She thrived in the non-traditional academic environment.
“It was excellent,” she said, noting many classmates affectionately referred to her as Grandma. “It was very diverse, and most of them looked up to me … I got along with all of them.”
For her success at the College, she thanked a long list of Thomas Nelson professors, staff, administrators and departments, among them Keisha Samuels of Human Services, and English professor Steven Wilson.
“They became my family away from home. I knew people by name. They knew me by name,” she said. “Everyone was so helpful and kind and polite and professional. Their main goal was (for us) to complete our education and get good grades.”
Samuels said everyone benefitted from having Hardy in class.
“Sandra was an engaged student with faculty and peers, always offering a kind word and a beautiful smile,” Samuels said. “She worked in a spirit of excellence and was always receptive to feedback on how to grow personally and professionally.”
Hardy said she fit in at Thomas Nelson from the beginning, with everyone making her feel as if she were at home. She called her time at the College “the greatest thing that I’ve done for myself.”
She said her age was never a problem.
“The professors, they took their time. They were patient, especially with my age group. I just turned 70 in April,” she said. “They always said we were the best students.”
Her grandkids and great-grandkids thinking she’s “cool” and “the bomb,” and that she “rocks” and has “it going on.” But her college days aren’t over yet. She’s considering Old Dominion University and Saint Leo University.
“I have to go on,” she said.
If a hurricane, two battles with cancer and the challenges of earning a degree while in her 60s hasn’t stopped her, what will?