The remarkable thing about Steph Lilly’s success story is that it is rooted in failure.
WITT graduate Steph this month started work at Taranaki Base Hospital as a mental health nurse.
If having walked the walk is an ideal credential to talking the talk, then her credentials are five star.
New Plymouth born Steph was a ward of the state, she attended four different secondary schools, before leaving at 16. She failed most exams and her best effort was “barely passing”.
She failed her driving test six times, so took a don’t-care attitude and drove anyway.
She moved between girls’ homes and foster families, living in Porirua, Hutt Valley and Wellington, grew up there and could be found sniffing glue in Courtenay Place in the early 1980s.
She was in rehab at 21 and two year later gave birth to a daughter – a watershed moment when she decided it was time to “clean up” her act.
For the best part of 10 years she did. But having maintained a “semblance of normality” she turned to alcohol again.
“We moved a lot,” she recalled. “I couldn’t handle being in the same place for too long.”
But daughter Alana was a focussed young woman who had drive – and a desire to get to Wellington and study, so she moved south and left Steph in Hastings.
That drive took Alana through Victoria University, from where she emerged with a Masters in English language and literature. She is now married in living in Australia.
Children often credit their parents for their success.
Steph, on the other hand, took inspiration from her daughter.
She returned to New Plymouth in 2012, reconnected with her birth father and step mum – who had been together for almost 40 years – and set up home with a new partner, Chris.
“I started work in a rest home on $13.50 an hour, but I couldn’t get anywhere on that and Alana nagged me to do some nursing. I looked at it – a year of tertiary study to start – and thought I’m too old for that.”
But she did enrol at WITT, with plenty of support from Chris.
“I didn’t know how to do an assessment. I handed my first one in and my tutor Lisa said: it’s a bit skimpy, isn’t it?”
Steph found herself facing a battle to convince herself she could succeed.
“When you’re told often enough and for long enough, it becomes self-fulfilling… I was a failure.”
But the oldest student in the class stuck with it for three years.
On the eve of becoming a Registered Nurse, her stepmother died after a short battle with cancer and Steph was derailed. For a moment it might have all unravelled.
“The tutors said to take a break. They gave me time away, it was just six weeks before the end of the course, but they gave me time to get my shit together.”
She duly completed her transition in the last semester of 2017 and passed her State Final exam.
The nursing student who questioned herself every step of the way then underlined her new level of confidence by commencing study for a Post Graduate degree in nursing. It will keep her in study for up to two years.
“I never dreamed I could do a nursing degree. Why have I done it? Because of the amazing support of the staff. They keep you going.
“I think had this been a bigger polytech with huge rooms full of students I would never have finished it. At times they held my hand, they energised me.”
In her new role, she hopes her own experience will inspire and give hope to others who have “experienced horrendous stuff”.
She is also brave enough to allow her warts-and-all story to be told.
“People might feel stuck – but you can change,” he said.
She will look back on one moment that probably cemented her resolve to succeed.
“The first year was a slog. I passed, that’s all. But in the second year, I got a B-minus, and it felt amazing.”
And her daughter, who was at graduation with family and friends from Hastings and Palmerston North is, Steph says, “quite proud”.
“I feel like I’ve grown up and reshaped myself,” she said.
She is now working in Te Puna Waiora, a 23-bed unit, catering for the needs of people with acute mental illness at Taranaki Base Hospital.
As Steph observes, it’s quite a long way from a bus stop in Courtenay Place.
And yes, in answer to the question, it does feel like it’s the best time of her life.