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Student battles cancer and COVID-19 to earn doctoral degree

Education

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POCATELLO — One year into her journey toward achieving her lifelong dream of being Dr. Harden, Tania Harden was given news that nobody wants to hear–her cancer had relapsed.

Harden, who works as an instructional librarian at Idaho State University, was accepted into the College of Education’s Instructional Design and Technology (IDT) doctorate program in fall 2018.

After receiving the heartbreaking news that she would have to undergo chemotherapy treatments after only being in the program one year, Harden was even more determined to complete her doctoral program. She continued taking classes even while being accepted into a clinical trial for a new cancer treatment that had intense side effects. Fortunately, her doctor ended the trial and Harden was able to take several months to recover from the effects of the new treatment. Despite these setbacks, she proposed her dissertation study on August 18, 2021.

Then, just as she was beginning her data collection, Harden contracted COVID-19. Due to her participation in clinical trial side effects and recovery, she was unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. As she was admitted to the hospital, Harden’s ISU colleagues rallied to support her, helping to make sure the data she needed was collected.

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Harden’s hospital visit lasted three weeks, two spent on a ventilator. Both her pulmonologist and oncologist later stated that they didn’t have much hope that she would survive. In November, she went home in a wheelchair.

“Our weekly Zoom meetings showed me a tired but recovering – and determined – student and colleague,” said Dr. David Coffland, Associate Professor and Harden’s mentor.

By early December, Harden was able to analyze her data. In January, she was able to make the trip downstairs to her home office for her weekly meetings with Coffland. By March, she was drafting her conclusions and discussion as she was finally healthy enough to start a new round of chemotherapy.

On April 18, Harden successfully defended her dissertation with so much attention to detail that the committee struggled to find questions that she hadn’t already answered in her presentation. She will be hooded at ISU’s Commencement Ceremony on Saturday and be officially recognized as Dr. Tania Harden.

“While all my students overcame professional and personal difficulties to achieve their degree,” said Dr. Coffland, “I know of no other student who surmounted as many obstacles as Tania has faced. I have made certain that she knows I admire her resilience, determination, and courage. She has been an inspiration to all those around her.”

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