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Grad uses technology, talent, passion to make positive change

| Judy Berthiaume

Even though Sona Mehring realized long ago that nursing was not her thing, she still found a way to help millions of people around the world during their health crises.

Sona — a 1983 UW-Eau Claire computer science graduate — retired in June from CaringBridge, a website she founded 20 years ago to help patients’ families and friends easily connect and communicate during a medical crisis.

“Knowing we are helping people be there for each other always has been the true motivating factor,” Sona says of creating and leading one of the world’s first social networking sites. “I hear from people all the time who want to share their CaringBridge stories. I’m blessed that every day I get to see the impact of our work.”

Twenty years ago, Sona was running a successful web consulting business in the Twin Cities when her friends, JoAnn Hardegger and Darrin Swanson, had a premature baby girl they named Brighid.

With JoAnn hospitalized and Brighid undergoing multiple surgeries, Sona was anxious to help. When Darrin asked her to call their family and friends to let them know what was going on, she quickly picked up the phone.

“After two calls, I knew there had to be a better way,” Sona says. “That’s when I had the idea to make a website. I built a site to post updates, and people responded immediately. The site created a community that brought everyone together.”

Her friends’ daughter passed away when she was nine days old. During her memorial service, Sona noticed the strong connections that already existed among JoAnn and Darrin’s friends and family thanks to the website.

She knew then that the site was something she wanted to share with others who were going through their own health journeys.

“I became quite obsessed with the idea because it clearly had such an impact,” Sona says. “It was so inspirational that I knew this had to be a service for anyone who was going through a health crisis. After an exhaustive search to see if something like it already existed and finding out that it didn’t, it became my true passion.”

Her consulting business kept her busy, but any extra time she had was devoted to developing the new site, which she named CaringBridge, in honor of the baby who inspired it.

A few weeks after Brighid’s memorial service, Sona launched a public version of CaringBridge, making it possible for anyone to build their own community to support loved ones during their time of need.

“I got it out there in the world and then it really grew very organically, mostly by word-of-mouth,” Sona says. “As people used it, they would see the power in it and tell others.”

Through CaringBridge, people create personal web pages where loved ones post updates on a patient’s health, and where family and friends share thoughts and comments.

The pages build a support network for patients and their loved ones, while also easing the burden of having to share the same health-related information repeatedly with concerned friends and family.

Two decades after Sona launched the site, CaringBridge users in 230+ countries and territories have created more than half a million personal pages on the site.

While there now are multiple social media sites that bring people together, CaringBridge continues to stand out because of the good that comes from the connections it fosters.

“There is so much power in positivity and positive connections,” Sona says. “We see a lot of negatively in social networking, but through CaringBridge we use connections to make the world a better place.”

Sona always knew that her life’s work would involve helping people, but she was less sure what path she would follow to make positive change happen.

“I went to UW-Eau Claire because of the nursing program,” Sona says. “My mother had great career as a nurse so when it came time to declare a major, I said nursing. But I knew pretty quickly that it was not what I wanted to do.”

Looking for inspiration, she visited UW-Eau Claire’s Career Services office, where a chart showing job placement rates and starting salaries for different majors caught her eye.

“Computer science had the highest job placement and the highest starting salary so of course I thought it was a great major,” Sona says. “I graduated from a small high school so I had very little knowledge about what it meant to be a computer science major.

“Fortunately, from the first class, I loved it. I had a natural affinity for it. It was never hard for me because it felt natural. I loved it and was good at it, so it was the perfect fit.”

With her major decided, Sona found her next inspiration when the university’s work-study program put her to work in an academic computer lab in Phillips Hall.

“A professor needed me to automate his test,” Sona says. “I did it and it made his life easier. From that little experience — helping a professor be an even better professor — I knew that using technology to help people would be the theme throughout my career.”

As a Blugold, Sona was one of just three women in her class who were majoring in computer science.

“I grew up with brothers so I was used to being in male-dominated environments,” Sona says. “I didn’t see it as a barrier and I wasn’t intimidated by it.”

Despite so few women in the program, gender was never an issue during her time at UW-Eau Claire, Sona says, noting that faculty and her male classmates were respectful and encouraging.

Still, she is frustrated that more than three decades later there continues to be so few women studying computer science at UW-Eau Claire or elsewhere.

“I graduated in 1983 and the male-female ratio is about the same today as it was then,” Sona says. “That is unacceptable. Women should go into computer science in much larger numbers.

“There is so much you can do with it. It gives you a strong foundation that can take your career anywhere.”

One of her goals in retirement is to help grow the number of women computer scientists.

She will look for opportunities to talk with young women as they are entering college or beginning their careers to encourage them to think seriously about computer science.

She also hopes to help change the perception that computer scientists are nerdy male introverts, Sona says, noting that those stereotypes discourage many young women from even considering it as an option.

“In reality, the best programmer is a smart, articulate, outgoing person with great communication skills,” Sona says. “We need people to see that they do belong in this field.”

So what advice does a successful tech entrepreneur have for current Blugolds?

Embrace the opportunities that are all around you, Sona says.

Discoveries she made through academics, residence life, sports and campus clubs all helped shape her career and her life, she says.

“It’s important to focus on something, but remember that your whole self needs to be fed,” Sona says. “I like the Idea of using the college experience as a building block of discovery. If you do that during college, it powers you through your life. Life is not a single lane so the more you can expand your knowledge of different lanes, the better you will drive the roads of life.”

As she has learned, the lanes you drive may eventually connect in surprising ways.

“I started in nursing and then made a hard right turn to computer science,” Sona says. “CaringBridge has a big health care piece. So in that way, years after I made that right turn, the lanes came back together in a way that made everything easier for me.”

Photo caption: Blugold Sona Mehring retired this summer from CaringBridge, a social media site she created that has helped millions of people around the world come together during times of medical crisis.