Passion for defence and security for BA grad

BA graduate Rachel Stephens, with her mum, Christine Stephens, who graduated this week with a Certificate and a Graduate Diploma in Aviation.

Health problems deterred Rachel Stephens from pursuing her dream of being an army medic, but the newly-capped Bachelor of Arts (BA) graduate found her passion at Massey University and is now specializing in postgraduate studies in defence, security, intelligence and terrorism. 

Rachel received a BA with a double major in Defence studies and Security Studies and an Arts Certificate this week at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ graduation ceremony in Palmerston North. The determined woman has endured numerous personal and health challenges throughout her studies in order to get to graduation day. 

“My study journey began in 2015 – I wanted to join the New Zealand Defence Force as a medic but due to old health issues, they turned me down. I was a school leaver in a small Southland township rural school, Winton’s Central Southland College, with no prospects,” she says. 

A suggestion from her brother to enroll at Massey got her started. Once settled in at the halls, she made many new friends, and enjoyed a full-on social and study life.  “As a BA student, the BA [BASE+] common room had just been established and I became one of the first students to utilise the space for study and meeting more people,” she says.

She loved every aspect of campus life, signing up for Massey University hockey club, Yoshinkan aikido and many other activities. “Out of the blue, my health got the better of me, resulting in several trips to A&E [Accident and Emergency], suffering from severe back pain and numbness in my legs.”

A family history of diabetes caught up with her, resulting in a type-2 diabetes diagnosis, only weeks after being mildly concussed when playing hockey. Then depression set in, along with accommodation issues prompting her to move. 

Rachel says she learned to take better care of her health, continuing with aikido, enrolling in a BA Certificate as well and studying in summer school. In her second year, she suffered a sports-related wrist injury but continued to play hockey, show dogs and do assignments alongside visits to A&E, the x-ray department, physiotherapist, GP, ultrasound, hand therapist and eventually needing surgery. “Somehow I managed to pass all my papers, often only just!”

A second wrist operation was not the last her health worries. “Right before exams I found I had a very nasty oral infection which required urgent dental surgery and antibiotics. It seemed like I was never going to beat this health journey, or in fact achieve a good result in my study. Instead I continued to study and pass all my papers and over the summer completed my BA Certificate as well.”

BA for life skills

Rachel says studying a BA gave her numerous life skills – from critical thinking and writing to “ gaining an understanding of who I am as a person through [BA core paper on identity and belonging] Tu Rangawaewae. Using my knowledge in the area of national security to debate whether we should have some liberties removed for our own security during [BA core papers on global citizenship and community engagement] Tu Rangaranga and Tu Tira Mai allowed me to work as a team about humanitarian aid crisis via distance. 

“Through it all I had made lifelong friendships, met people who I could learn from and debate with and have genuine interesting conversations about the world situation. I now have a great network of support within my academic pathway and have learned about career paths and how to best approach the different agencies involved in my chosen field.”

Rachel is now enrolled in a Postgraduate Diploma in International Security with the specialisation of Terrorism studies (including the theory and history of counter-terrorism). Her interest in Intelligence studies relates to an area of history she is passionate about. “After writing an essay in secondary school for an essay competition via the Consulate of Ireland on the chosen subject of Bloody Sunday of 1920 (during the War of Independence), the Black and Tan and IRA (Irish Republican Army) became my fascination,” she says. 

A paper on terrorism and political violence through the Centre for Defence and Security Studies re-ignited her earlier interest in such issues. “With the multiple attacks of terror we see around the world, the idea of studying this field for a better understanding of appealed to me. I’m interested in how to try and stop these attacks from happening again, thus making the world a better place, hopefully.”

She also chose papers on security and intelligence via distance study. “I learned more about the intelligence cycle and history, and the importance of intelligence in the defence and security arena. These areas also are very specialised and challenging work spaces, and after the attacks of March 15, I feel they have become more vital than ever to New Zealand – I want to be amongst the team to protect a country I have been brought up to love and appreciate.”

“In three years, I had more than my share of bad luck ­– but I had massive support from lecturers in Aviation Studies, Collerge of Humanities and Social Sciences, BASE+ facilitators, family, friends old and new and the staff of Centre of Defence and Security Studies. Without the support of these people, and the help of my medical team, I would not be graduating this year with a BA and a Certificate of Arts,” she says. “If I can achieve this, anyone who sets their mind to it can.”

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