Personal Best: How Alumni Award Winner Sarah Stephens uses her gift that keeps on giving

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Sarah Stephens, BN, MN, AU grad 2015 and winner of Alumni Award for Volunteer Service [photo credit: Christy Dean Photography]

Sarah Stephens, BN, MN, AU grad 2015 and winner of Alumni Award for Volunteer Service [photo credit: Mclain Swift]

When Sarah Stephens received her bachelor’s degree at Athabasca University Convocation in 2009, she found herself  overcome with pride.

Seeing the smiling group of graduates from a variety of distance education programs—sharing a milestone moment in the AU Multiplex—moved her.

Three years later, when she was exploring schools for her master’s degree in nursing, she just knew AU would once again get her to her goal.

“It was the place that would allow me to live my life the way that I wanted to,” says Stephens.

So she started all over and, after three years, she was back up on AU’s convocation stage—pride in her eyes again—as she received her Master of Nursing degree.

But those three years leading up to this day weren’t without struggle. After all, what’s an AU adventure without putting that flexibility factor full throttle?

On the bright side, Stephens, a resident of Calgary, met and married her “AU sweetheart” Christopher, who graduated alongside her with the same degree.

2015 AU Master of Nursing graduate Sarah Stephens beside her husband and fellow MN graduate Christopher at AU Convocation [photo credit: Stacy Swanson, Excel Photography]

2015 AU Master of Nursing graduate Sarah Stephens beside her husband and fellow MN graduate Christopher at AU Convocation [photo credit: Stacy Swanson, Excel Photography]In between classes, she juggled her research with part-time and casual work at a hospital, and her passionate knack for long-distance competitive running.

She also demonstrated her personal best in the myriad of community volunteer projects she had going on—something she says she’s always put her heart and soul into.

She loves volunteering because of the variety of people and situations she encounters and it helps her to connect with patients in the nursing world.

“I get to experience so many different things outside of my comfort zone,” Stephens explains.

“You really get to understand the patients you’re seeing and you practise a lot better when you’re working with people from different walks of life, different cultural backgrounds.”

Volunteering for causes like the Belcourt Brousseau Métis Awards (BBMA) each year, is a family affair. Stephen’s family has been actively supporting the BBMAs for a decade. Her sister even created the Rau Family Fund (Stephen’s maiden name) – an endowment award, to which, upon graduating herself, she contributed $10,000. The gift helped support two students to attend law- and nursing schools, respectively.

“I was brought up to believe that you need to give back. You’re only going to reap what you give. ‘Sharing is Caring’ is one of my family’s mottos,” she says.

“It’s simple things like that. You have to carry your gifts and your talents.”

Juggling curve balls

But then life changed. Stephens shattered her tail bone running in a race. The damage was so severe she had to have spinal surgery to remove it. She had only a year to go before she would graduate.

Her body and movement ability wasn’t the same.

“I used to run 40 km a week or more. I wasn’t able to do that anymore,” she explains.

Doctors’ orders prescribed she can now walk a maximum of 5 km a day. Beyond that, she’s wiped out.

“At the end of the day, if I’ve walked more than that on the [hospital] unit I’m working on, I am tired and exhausted when I get home,” says Stephens.

She had no choice but to switch things up to adjust to the curve ball and, above all, to keep her eye on the prize—getting that degree as planned.

As she asserts, “somehow I find energy when I need it.”

So with the help of her AU supervisor and the fact the university accommodates students to tailor their own practicums, she knew she’d be able to finish on time.

And while being on stomach-rest for six weeks might sound easy, Stephens concedes “there’s only so much Netflix you can watch.”

Instead, she put her A-type personality and resourcefulness to good use.

“We made sure we got all of my practical hours in without being overloaded. I bought a massage table for at home so I could be on stomach rest and could look through the head piece to type out my homework and stay on top of everything for the next six weeks,” Stephens explains.

AU was the place that would allow me to live my life the way that I wanted to. ~ Sarah Stephens, BN, MN

She also chose courses in which she knew sitting wouldn’t be an issue.

“I chose a practicum where I would be standing mostly. And because I could pick my hours, I did mostly half-days—because that’s all my body could physically handle.”

Essentially, Stephens says AU afforded her a gem-like opportunity to juggle life’s hurdles throughout an intensive post-graduate program. She attests having that Athabasca leeway allowed her to keep volunteering and play the game of life on her terms.

“No other school would have allowed me to do half-days,” says Stephens.

“Without Athabasca University there would have been no way for me to finish my master’s degree. The fact I could work on my school four hours a day and go home to get the rest that I needed to heal as well as I possibly could—and maintain my sanity—was over and beyond my expectations. I am so grateful.”

I bought a massage table for at home so I could be on stomach rest and could look through the head piece to type out my homework and stay on top of everything for the next six weeks. ~Sarah Stephens, BN, MN

Stephens turned 29 right before she received her Nurse Practitioner’s licence. According to industry insiders, she’s the youngest NP in Alberta.

Cancer research and cancer walks and runs are still a big part of her life—her own physical setback notwithstanding.

Now that she’s not allowed to run anymore, she volunteers with the races.

Says Stephens: “I hand out medals at the end. I will be the person at the corner telling you to turn right regardless of whether it’s snowing, raining or 30 degrees outside.”

When one door closes…

As a newly minted NP this past September, Stephens was crestfallen to learn there was a hiring freeze for nurse practitioners in the province. But before she even had time to remove her heart from her throat, her phone rang. It was Athabasca University asking her to interview for a teaching position that opened up.

Just a few days later she was hired.

Now she devotes her time and attention to her AU students—putting the same effort she does with her volunteering into making a better experience for 16 nurses “that are going to be dealing with real people on the other end.”

“I’m paying it forward for all the people that went out of their way to make it better for me when I was going to school…to teach the next generation of nurses is a complete blessing,” she says.

Each year, four AU Alumni Awards are presented to deserving Alumni who each receive a print award depicting the beautiful work of renowned artist Ted Harrison.

Each year, four AU Alumni Awards are presented to deserving Alumni who each receive a print award depicting the beautiful work of renowned artist Ted Harrison.

Last spring, Stephen’s husband Christopher responded to AU’s Alumni Relations request to nominate an AU peer who embodies excellence as an alumni ambassador. Stephens was a winner yet again.

She says receiving the Athabasca Alumni Award for Volunteer Service took her by surprise.

“…in such a fantastic way,” she remarks, adding, “I get so much out of volunteering.”

“I feel extremely honoured I was nominated in the first place. To be recognized by my AU peers and alma mater is really special. Receiving an award and recognition for it is just incredible.”