As a longstanding professional in higher education, Pharr described herself as someone who played by the rules and valued a hard work ethic and productivity. At the age of 38 she was happily teaching science at a public college and worked hard to encourage women to pursue careers in the sciences, but felt something was missing. Over a gradual period of time Pharr realized she wasn't able to connect her faith to her work while working at a public institution.
She accepted a position at College of Saint Mary, a private Catholic, Mercy university for women, where she encountered a student who changed the way she approached business entirely. After failing out of nursing classes and receiving a letter of dismissal from the institution, a student approached Pharr to appeal the decision. While reviewing the student's academic history, Pharr noted there were obstacles in the woman's life that explained why it would be difficult for her to pass classes, including an abusive husband, a divorce, and raising children as a single mother. Pharr also noticed there was nothing in the academic record that indicated the student would be successful in the program.
While she sympathized with the student's situation, she supported the decision to have her dismissed from the institution. After the student's pleas for one more chance and declaration she simply "had to be a nurse," Pharr expressed that the student had used up all of her chances. A few days later, everything changed when the institution's president approached Pharr about the matter and wanted to know what it would take for the student to have another chance.
Feeling a bit stunned, Pharr responded that the student would have to start from the beginning – successfully repeating her coursework and entrance exam. The student accepted the opportunity and ultimately earned a degree in nursing at College of Saint Mary. She currently works as a nurse in a hospital in Nebraska. It was an awakening for Pharr to see the student achieve her goals despite her many obstacles, and also a strong testimonial to the mission of Mercy.
"We shouldn't lower the bar of expectations," Pharr said. "The Mercy mission calls for role models to offer reassurance for people to achieve their goals - seeking ways to raise people up and turn their challenges into accomplishments."
As her conversion unfolded from a strict administrator to someone who began looking at others with compassion and having the ability to succeed despite all obstacles, Pharr noted three rules for success in private, higher education. First, she described private colleges and universities as institutions that weren't just teaching curriculum, but transforming students into successful, contributing members of society. Second, she acknowledged that people don't always behave the way others believe they should, and she encouraged people to consider the other perspective. Finally, she noted the importance of communication and the way in which words are expressed. Acknowledging the faith and work of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Pharr noted McAuley's ability to look deeper into a situation and respond with compassion and mercy.
"Think about what would happen if we took a moment to acknowledge there is more to the story – that people are generally good; Catherine McAuley did," Pharr said. "Catholic, Mercy colleges have the ability to look deeper and respond with compassion and mercy. Following our calling one day and one person at a time, we will find more happy endings than we're used to seeing."