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A Former Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Journey to an Ed.D.

Sonya Lawrence

Beginning with a paper route as a teenager in her hometown of Amityville, New York (yes, that Amityville), Sonya Lawrence has held various jobs during a successful and still burgeoning career. As she recounts them during an interview for this story, it suddenly strikes her: “It seems like every one I ever went to was the greatest job ever.”

Perhaps it wasn’t the job itself that made it “the greatest” so much as the enthusiasm, dedication, and competence Lawrence has brought to her duties as a nurse, lawyer, U.S. attorney, and now senior vice president and chief compliance officer for Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health in Philadelphia. She has held the latter position since 2017, and her stellar reputation landed Lawrence on the cover of the February 2021 issue of Compliance Today, a monthly magazine published by the Health Care Compliance Association.

Soon after assuming her current title, Lawrence enrolled in Wilming-ton University’s Organizational Leader-ship and Innovation doctoral degree program in the College of Education. “Our organization at Jefferson was changing,” she says. “We were acquiring hospitals, and attempting to lead some of the acquisition alignment and cultural integration we were trying to do was interesting, complex, and from my perspective, difficult. So I felt like I could use an education on how organizations function, how they improve engagement, and how the leaders of those organizations really drive change across the entity.”

A mother of two, Lawrence was hoping to find a program that was relatively near her home in Bear, Delaware. On the recommendation of friends, she looked into the University’s offerings. “I applied, had my interview, had another interview with some people who were leading real organizations, and decided that this is a  program that meets my needs, both professional and personal,” she says. “I had the option to do an online course, but I always want to be engaged with people in person if I can, so I opted for in-person.”

She hopes to receive her Ed.D. by the end of the year, but her studies have already delivered almost everything she wanted. She’s especially impressed with the cohort aspect of the program. “I commend Wilmington University for the cohort system they use. I think it really works. It is so well designed to align with your real-life experience, and because people come from all walks of life and all industries and all levels, you get a great perspective on what it means to be an employee or a president of an organization, and how to apply the things you are learning in those circumstances.”

Like many doctoral candidates, Lawrence has become close to those in her cohort. They are now in the dissertation phase of their work, but they previously met Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m. “I have made some of the best connections and friendships,” she says. “We provide each other with frank feedback, we hold each other accountable, we eat together, laugh together —both inside and outside the classroom. I wouldn’t trade knowing those 16 people for anything in the world. And as they finish their dissertations and get their doctorate degrees, I feel like every time someone finishes, I finish.”

After earning a degree in Nursing from Temple University and serving as president of her senior class in 1991, Lawrence worked five years as a cardiomyopathy nurse coordinator at Temple University Hospital. She then entered Temple Law School and became assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania before joining Jefferson in 2008.

In her current position, Lawrence ensures that Jefferson complies with its outside regulatory and legal requirements as well as internal policies and bylaws. She says the key to a strong compliance program, like most other aspects of a successful organization, is leadership.

“I think leaders need to communicate, demonstrate, and support all the values of that organization, and make sure that everyone understands what doing the right thing looks like, and understands that’s what’s expected. And they need to make sure that everyone has all the tools they need to do that.”

“That’s my elevator speech,” she adds, smiling. “I go around Jefferson saying that, over and over.”

—Bob Yearick

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