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Faculty member uses Holocaust diary to teach, learn resilience
Dr. Tese Stephens

JOHNSON CITY – Dr. Tese Stephens, an assistant professor in East Tennessee State University’s College of Nursing, has spent the better part of a decade researching the importance of resilience in individuals who work in a health care environment.

In looking at how health care professionals can increase their own resilience so they are able to better cope and adapt to stressful work environments, Stephens began her research by studying individuals and populations considered to be resilient.

“I wanted to try to determine characteristics they might have in common,” Stephens said. “Based on my work, in 2013, I developed a resilience model and, ever since, I’ve been testing the model to see how it applies to different groups and situations.”

Holocaust survivors became a natural fit for her research as she aimed to learn more about resilience and also look at health care’s role in social justice, Stephens said. In working closely with the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, she was introduced to a book by Timothy Boyce called “From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.”

“It is the diary of Holocaust survivor Odd Nansen, who was an avid writer and artist and a political prisoner from Norway,” Stephens explained. “He was somehow able to keep a diary despite threats of death and, even more, was able to smuggle it out.”

Nansen’s daily musings featured in Boyce’s book have provided great material for Stephens and her resilience research. Working with four College of Nursing doctoral students – Sharon Bigger, Linda Cabage, Jessica Craine and Robyn Tobias – Stephens has been using Nansen’s accounts to see if they match up with her theory of resilience.

Through their work, the team reaffirmed that resilient individuals all seem to have certain “protective factors,” or characteristics.  These characteristics include hope, faith, perseverance, flexibility and tenacity.

“Whether it’s a cancer patient, an amputee, someone who has been bullied or the victim of a shooting, there are these things people who are considered resilient draw on to cope,” Stephens said. “So the question becomes, ‘Can we learn them and can we teach them?’ Yes, we can.”

Stephens said there are many things that help individuals learn or enhance resilience.

“A lot of our tendencies are inborn traits, but through practice and repetition, you can learn to change some of them. It has to be an intentional process, though,” she said. “It is, more or less, forcing the behaviors and practicing them every day.”

Stephens and her team are still analyzing all of their findings from their work related to Boyce’s book. However, she believes Nansen’s “wicked sense of humor” and his constant thoughts about his wife and children were key factors in his own story of resilience.

Boyce recently visited ETSU to speak about how he came upon Nansen’s diary and the process he went through to get it published. He discussed Nansen and his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. Nansen died in the 1970s.

Following Boyce’s lecture, Stephens and her students gave a brief presentation on the use of the book and their findings thus far. 

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