A Celebration of the Life and Career of Dr. Gladys Sorensen, UArizona Nursing’s Second Dean

Jan. 20, 2021

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Dr. Gladys Sorensen with UArizona Nursing Dean Ki Moore

When Dr. Gladys Sorensen, the University of Arizona College of Nursing’s second dean, passed away on January 3  the College lost one of its most iconic figures and consistent champions.

From 1958 until her passing, Dr. Sorensen was deeply involved in the College’s milestones and successes, wearing professional hats that included Professor (1958-1967 and 1987-1988), Dean (1967-1986) and Dean and Professor Emerita (1988-2021). As recently as 2019, at the age of 98, she was still active in the College’s achievements, taking a tour of the brand-new BSN-IH program’s facilities in Gilbert, Ariz. Photos of the event depict her wearing an infectious smile as she views the brand-new labs and classrooms.

Dr. Gladys Sorensen takes a tour of the brand-new BSN-IH program’s facilities in Gilbert, Ariz.

“In my conversations with her sister, Jane Pinckert, I learned that Gladys was an avid world traveler, but one with a purpose,” said UArizona Nursing Dean Ki Moore, PhD, RN, FAAN.  “She consulted on the development of nursing programs in a number of countries including Ghana and Korea. This dedication for nursing education was why Gladys was among the most respected national and international nursing leaders. At the heart of her passion was the student experience and Gladys loved attending our Scholarship Tea. She gave a memorable presentation about her time as Dean at our last “in-person” Tea and the entire room was encapsulated by her enthusiasm.  We are blessed for her long history of advancing our College in research and education.”

During her tenure as dean, Dr. Sorensen led the College to national prominence in nursing education. She raised the profile of graduate education in the College, particularly the PhD program, to international prominence for its excellence in nursing research. Students and alumni celebrated her excellence as a teacher, both in clinical and classroom settings, and her leadership in national nursing organizations helped shape the future of nursing and nursing education.

Dr. Gladys Sorensen

Born October 17, 1922, she spent her earliest years in Nebraska, where she demonstrated a commitment to caring for others from a young age. Her career in nursing education began in 1945 when she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of Nebraska. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Nursing and a Public Health Nursing Certificate from the University of Colorado in 1951. In 1964 she earned the Doctor of Education degree from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, cementing her trajectory for higher education. 

After five years of clinical nursing positions, Dr. Sorensen accepted a teaching position at the University of Colorado School of Nursing, where she honed her skills as a nurse educator.  In 1958 she made Tucson her home, joining the newly established baccalaureate nursing program at the University of Arizona, when the College’s base was still a modest conference room in the Liberal Arts Building.

Dr. Sorensen was acknowledged by colleagues, students and alumni as an excellent teacher in both classroom and clinical settings, and as a skilled mentor to many faculty and alumni. During the following years, she demonstrated excellence in nursing education, nursing research and nursing leadership. She served as Professor of Nursing from 1958-1967, teaching baccalaureate and graduate nursing students, one of whom was future UArizona Nursing Dean Suzanne Van Ort, PhD, FAAN, Dean Emerita and Professor Emerita.  

Dean Sorensen at the College of Nursing's official ribbon-cutting ceremony

“Throughout her distinguished career, Dr. Gladys Sorensen demonstrated excellence in nursing education, nursing research and nursing leadership,” said Dr. Van Ort, who became the College’s fourth dean in 1992. “As Dean of the UArizona College of Nursing, she guided the evolution of the College in developing baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs that reflected both the art and science of nursing. Dr. Sorensen’s leadership in national nursing organizations helped shape the future of nursing education.  On a personal level, I have been fortunate to know Dr. Sorensen for more than five decades, beginning with her being one of my instructors in the baccalaureate nursing program. Throughout my career she was a valued mentor and role model to me as a student, alumna, colleague and academic administrator. Dr. Sorensen’s legacy of excellence will live on through the achievements of those whose lives she touched.”

When Dr. Sorensen succeeded UArizona's first dean, Pearl Ann Coulter, in 1967, the College was only a shadow of what it would grow to be, occupying modest quarters in the UA stadium building and a former real-estate office near campus. Under her tenure, construction began on the new College of Nursing building, and in 1968 she oversaw the official ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the launch of the UArizona College of Nursing as we know it today.

Dr. Sorensen held the position of dean until her retirement as Dean Emerita and Professor Emerita in 1986.  She guided the evolution of the College of Nursing in developing baccalaureate and graduate programs. During her tenure, graduate education in the College, particularly the PhD program, was recognized throughout the world for excellence in nursing research.  She was also instrumental in the establishment of Beta Mu Chapter, Sigma Theta Tau International, which has gone on to win 13 Chapter Key awards for excellence in activities such as membership recruitment and retention, publicity and programing, professional and leadership development and local, national and international collaboration. 

Dr. Sorensen’s leadership in national nursing organizations helped shape the future of nursing and nursing education. She served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Nursing Education and held leadership positions in the Council of Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Programs of National League for Nursing, the Western Council on Higher Education, and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.  On the state level, she held many leadership positions throughout her career and was recently honored by the Arizona Nursing Association as part of its Year of the Nurse recognition. 

Among her many accomplishments, she was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. In 1985, she was elected as President of this prestigious organization, and in 2002 she was named a “Living Legend” of the Academy, a significant professional accolade. In recognition of all her accomplishments and contributions to the profession, Dr. Sorensen was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Her commitment to UArizona Nursing students was so robust that in 1987 the College established the Gladys E. Sorensen Award for Academic Excellence. Launched in appreciation of Dean Sorensen’s achievements and her development of outstanding academic programs that promote the nursing profession,  the awartd ensures her impact on the successes of future Wildcat Nurses. “It was a true honor to receive the Gladys E. Sorensen Award for Academic Excellence as a BSN graduate,” said December 2020 graduate Emily Turecek, one of the most recent recipients of the award. “To be recognized for both academic and clinical care is something I hold very highly, and am proud to continue the excellence Dr.  Sorensen demonstrated. I will continue to uphold these values as I begin my career as an RN and whatever my future endeavors may hold.”

In addition to her professional accomplishment, Dr. Sorensen participated actively in community service in the Tucson area. She was a Board member of the Pima Council on Aging and an Elder at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church.

In her long and full life, Gladys Sorensen loved her family, honored her friends, lived her faith, and served the nursing profession with distinction.

We will miss you, Gladys!