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Military To Medicine: Air Force, Navy veterans become nurses after second chances at college

Military To Medicine: Air Force, Navy veterans become nurses after second chances at college

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a photo banner split into two portrait photos. One the right is Stephanie Millett wearing nursing scrubs standing in front of Tacoma General Hospital. On the left, Raven Lopez is standing in front of NYU Langone hospital. Both women are smiling into the camera.

Image: Raven Lopez ’22, left, is is part of NYU Langone’s Nurse Resource Team. Stephanie Millett ’22, right, is halfway through her critical cardiac care residency at Pulse Heart Institute. (Photos by Sy Bean/PLU)

September 5, 2023
By Anneli Haralson
Resolute Guest Writer

Stephanie Millett ’22 was in her early 20s when she walked into a U.S. Navy recruiting office after dropping out of the University of Oregon in 2010. The decision to enlist, she says, was “a bit of a last resort” to get her family and friends to stop asking what she was doing with her life.

“There I was signing my life away feeling relieved that this will get me at least four years to become someone others weren’t worried about all of the time,” she says.

Three years later, Raven Lopez ’22 realized that after one year at the University of Arizona, she wouldn’t be able to afford college. So, at the age of 19, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

Nearly a decade later, the two women’s lives paralleled each other again — this time at Pacific Lutheran University when they began nursing school in February 2020. Millett had left the Navy after eight years as an aviation mechanic. Lopez had left active duty and transitioned to the Air Force Reserves. Now, they both were pursuing nursing in hopes of continuing their careers in service to others.

“I chose nursing because I wanted to keep serving people and to be a part of someone’s healing journey,” Lopez says. “Serving my country was rewarding and I wanted a career that would be just as rewarding and fulfilling.”

She chose PLU because many of the nurses who she worked with in the Reserves were Lutes and “only had great things to say about the nursing program,” she says. Once she saw that 90% of PLU nursing students pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam) on their first attempt, and learned about the university’s military benefits — PLU was named one of the Top 20 Best Colleges for Veterans in the West by U.S. News & World Report — she was sold.

Millett (left) and Lopez (right) both decked out in PLU commencement robes on the day of their nursing pinning ceremony. They are smiling and standing in PLU's Red Square.

For Millett, nursing seemed like a natural next step as she was already working as a certified nursing assistant. “It’s a dirty and somewhat thankless job, but I actually enjoyed it,” she says. “I figured why not work my way up the ladder?”

Before deciding to study at PLU, Millett was attending Tacoma Community College for pre-nursing and planned to apply for TCC’s associate degree in nursing program. That was until a friend told her about PLU and the chance its nursing program provided her to earn a bachelor of science in nursing. “A bachelor’s degree had been something I regretted not finishing,” she recalls.

Millett and Lopez began classes during the spring semester of 2020, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the first day of classes in early February, neither of the women knew what was coming in just one month — lockdowns, social distancing, the cancellation of in-person classes and the rise of virtual learning — but Lopez recalls a bit of wisdom from Tracy Holt, assistant professor of nursing, on the first day of classes: “She told us that to be a nurse is to be a lifelong learner. Nursing is a growing and ever-changing field and we, as nurses, need to learn to adapt, critically think and learn as much as we can.”

That adaptability was put to the test over the next two years as both women navigated the uncharted territory of nursing school during a global pandemic. Both agree that nursing school was the most challenging undertaking of their lives — Millett called the experience a “kick in the face at times” — but the need for nurses following the shortage created during the pandemic highlighted the importance of their work.

“We learned how to carry on and be successful amidst chaos,” Millett said in her speech at the PLU Nursing School graduation in December 2022. “Over the past three years, nurses have faced tremendous challenges that continue to impact their physical and mental health. While some people view this as a crisis, others see opportunities to rise to new challenges. We are those others. We will be the ones to help fill that void — to help heal the sick, to help comfort the scared and to help support our community. We will be the ones to show up just as we have time and time again.”

It’s been nearly one year since that graduation ceremony and the two nurses are both currently working in hospitals, though on different coasts. In Manhattan, Lopez is part of NYU Langone’s Nurse Resource Team — which was created by the hospital as a way to address the nursing shortage. There, she has the opportunity to work in a different unit every four to six weeks.

“I wanted to become a well-rounded and knowledgeable nurse in all areas and I felt that the position would give me that, especially as a new graduate,” she says. “I can float to medical-surgical units, organ transplant units, clinical observation in the emergency department, postsurgical units or oncology. I am hoping that being a part of the resource team will also help me decide what kind of nursing I want to specialize in.”

Meanwhile, here in Tacoma, Millett is halfway through her critical cardiac care residency at Pulse Heart Institute. Following residency, she will work in cardiovascular intensive care units at both Multicare Tacoma General Hospital and Multicare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup.

“Residency has been a challenge to say the least,” Millett says. “The learning curve is steep, but I have an undying faith that everything will get better and more comfortable with each new experience every day.”


Cover of the 2023 issue of Resolute magazine. Librarian Brian Bannon stands in front of the HQ of the New York Public Library. Above him the image says "RESOLUTE" in PLU's signature gold.

This article is part of the “Science of Care” section of the Fall 2023 issue of Resolute Magazine.