This College of Education doctoral graduate had to overcome the topic of her dissertation to complete it. She hopes her research also will empower others.
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Life isn't always sunshine and roses.
From her ever-present smile, one would likely have no idea this outlook is crucial in Stephanie Millett's life. She genuinely enjoys her roles she has earned as a writer, a doting grandmother and a spring 2023 Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction graduate from the College of Education at Texas Tech University.
But before Millett could complete her dissertation, she had to overcome its topic: writing apprehension, an actual fear and anxiety that prevents writing.
“Writing apprehension is ‘Oh, I can't write. I'm terrified of what people are going to think. What kind of feedback am I going to get? Am I going to sound like an idiot? Will people believe me?'” Millet explained.
During her experience as a teacher and a writing consultant at the Writing Centers of Texas Tech, Millett encountered many students who suffered from writing apprehension and wanted to figure out how to help them through it.
“To see them hit this obstacle made me think, ‘I've got to at least offer them a way around this obstacle so they can enjoy the same benefits of writing I've enjoyed,'” Millett said.
She began to research writing apprehension with undergraduate students for her dissertation but hit a roadblock during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They had a really hard time articulating what was happening to them on the level that I wanted to look,” she said. “I wasn't really finding my answers, so I had to take a step back. I was very disappointed.”
Julie Smit, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, witnessed Millett's struggle.
“We've seen a lot of students who don't bounce back from adversity,” Smit said. “They just drop out.”
Not Millett, though.
She chose to regroup and switch her focus to graduate students. Once she moved into that research, she realized her findings could help her battle her own writing apprehension.
“I went on this journey with my participants asking them, ‘What are you doing when you're running into these moments of apprehension?'” she said. “And they told me these amazing stories of the strategies that they were incorporating. Some of them were so simple as one participant put ‘PhD' as her password. And that was it. She said, ‘I'm going to convince myself I'm a Ph.D. before I am even one.'”
Millett began to understand these sorts of strategies and tactics are called learned resourcefulness.
“It's this way of going about the world and using our resourcefulness to manage our emotions, so that no matter what is going on around us – particularly when it's stressful – we can maintain our emotional control and still be ourselves,” Millett said. “We can still reach our goals and achieve our outcomes.”
Millett gradually began to apply learned resourcefulness to her routine. She woke up early to write and created a dissertation box, which contained all the physical items she needed to push through and complete her doctoral program.
These simple methods worked so well that Millett not only completed her dissertation, but won second place in the 2023 Outstanding Dissertation Awards in the category of humanities and fine arts from the Graduate School's Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Fellowships.
Smit is beyond proud of Millett and believes her resiliency can inspire others.
“It's just so amazing to me and to her that she finally graduated with this doctoral degree with the number of times she went back and forth with wanting to quit and that fear of writing,” Smit said, “and then turning around and just embodying it.”
But Millett's research did not only help her achieve a doctoral degree.
It's helped her understand how to cope with life challenges – and she has faced many.
“My dissertation kind of brought everything together in my life,” she said. “I think that significance to me made this whole journey meaningful.”
A journey that became turbulent 24 years ago.
The Day Life Changed
Millett was divorced and raising her three young sons as a single mom in 1999. She was a waitress and remembers being particularly clumsy, covered in bruises. She felt fatigued and even experienced nosebleeds out of nowhere.
“One day I was going to work a double shift and my friend looked at me and said, ‘You look green,'” Millett recalled. “I said, ‘I just don't feel very well at all,' and she told me I needed to go home.”
In Millett's words, it all went downhill once she went to the ER and the doctor expressed concern about her bloodwork.
“I'll never forget. He said, ‘I don't know what's going on at this point. But I just want you to know today is going to change your life. I need you to be prepared for today.'”
But no pep talk could adequately ready Millett to learn she had leukemia.
“It was a moment of shock and disbelief, that this may be the end at age 27,” Millett said.
Thankfully, Millett's type of leukemia was treatable with a chemo drug that was new at the time. She had hope, but unfortunately, she could not have her sons.
“I was immunocompromised because my immune system was so decimated by the leukemia, and then by the chemo that destroyed my immune system so it could rebuild healthy cells,” she said. “That meant I couldn't see my boys and my mom had to tell them that.”
Her first hospital stay was three weeks, and by the time her boys visited, Millett remembers it as a traumatic experience.
“I had to be in what looked like a hazmat suit,” Millett mused. “I'm probably being dramatic, but it was a full surgical gown that was hooked up to monitors because I was receiving blood transfusions and antibiotics that couldn't be interrupted.”
Millett went through periods of quarantine in a special hospital room with filtered air to prevent infection.
During her absence, Millett's sister took her sons and had a portrait made of them. The framed photo remained by her hospital bed for each of her extended stays.
“Many of my health care providers would reassure me that they would do all they could to make sure I went home to my sweet boys,” Millett said.
It took a village effort for Millett to juggle her leukemia fight with childcare needs. Fortunately, her treatments were spaced to four during an eight-month span in an attempt to relieve mental fatigue.
“Then it took about another four months for my blood counts to recover where doctors could say, ‘OK, you're out of active treatment and we'll just maintain from here,'” Millett said.
Even then, the dread leukemia would return kept Millett awake at night for the next few months.
“When I look back at my life and think about when I started feeling OK, I think it's when I started to laugh again,” she said. “You know, when that spontaneous kind of laughter came back.”
Cancer taught Millett many, many lessons. But the most powerful question it caused her to ask herself was, “Is this who I want to be?”
After some contemplation, she decided she wanted to first enjoy motherhood, then become a skilled worker. She completed training to become a medical transcriptionist so she could be at home with her sons and avoid further illness.
“I found a greater appreciation of life,” she said. “And I really loved the people around me more deeply, because I realized nothing can be taken for granted.”
That perspective became particularly true 10 years later, when Millett – finally back on her feet – was knocked to the ground once again.
An Incomprehensible Loss
In 2009, Millett lost one of the smiling boys in the portrait that encouraged her through cancer treatments.
Her eldest son, Matt, battled substance abuse. He was in treatment but still struggled with depression and anxiety. At age 16, he took his life.
“Nothing can prepare you for that kind of loss,” Millett said. “I went into this darkness for a while.”
As Millett grieved, she began to struggle with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
“Friends would reach out and people would try to help but I just couldn't grasp it,” she said. “I had this significant kind of breakdown and came out of it saying, ‘I need to make this better. I need to find a way to make life meaningful again.'”
This time, Millett's search for purpose led her away from health care to the classroom.
“I reached back to those more formative years of my life and asked, ‘Who am I really? What do I really want?'” Millett remembered. “I think that's when I went back to that child who played teacher in the summer.”
She began her pursuit of education in 2010. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Utah Tech University and taught there on campus while earning her master's degree online from Northern Arizona University.
Along the way, what became more important than the degrees she earned was the way Millett noticed her life and education began to intersect.
The Impact of Writing
When Millett received an assignment to write a personal short story, she decided to open up about her son's death and the decision to donate his organs. Penning the words became what she calls an incredibly cathartic experience.
Her professor was so moved with the story, titled “Whispers of Strangers,” that he worked with Millett to get it published.
“I got to take something so tragic and horrible and turn it into something beautiful for someone,” Millett said. “That's a story people want to hear and a story I want to tell because it honors both my son's life and the idea of us taking care of each other however we can.”
The process of transferring trauma onto paper was so meaningful to Millet that she developed a newfound purpose: making sure more students get that opportunity.
“I want to share my insight with students who experience writing apprehension and work with them because they shouldn't be suffering at home alone, turning in assignments late because they feel so isolated,” she said. “They just need some strategies to work through it.”
No matter what position she holds within the field of education, Millett plans to expand her writing apprehension research to other populations and spread awareness about the power of learned resourcefulness.
In her case, once she uncovered ways to push past her writing apprehension, Millett could lean on similar coping methods during times of no sunshine and roses.
“The key is even when you open up the energy to incorporate strategies to get through challenges, you still have to love yourself through it,” she said. “No matter what it is, love yourself through it.”
It's been quite the journey for Millett to practice what she teaches, but as she has discovered time and time again:
You are more than your low points. You have a purpose. Your story is worth telling.