From military to civilian life: Dr. Mark Stephens walks into new chapter of his life


Dr. Mark Stephens (photo courtesy of THON).

Transitioning from military to civilian life can be a bumpy adjustment. Dr. Mark Stephens saw the potential struggles and decided to do something about it: he took a walk – a long one.

Stephens recently retired from the U.S. Navy and is now helping develop a new curriculum at Penn State College of Medicine University Park Regional Campus. Stephens thought the long walk would be a symbolic way to transition from one stage of his life to the next.

“I have watched enough friends and colleagues struggle during the transition from military to civilian life,” he said. “I wanted to have the time and space for contemplation. It’s hard to turn off the Navy one day and turn on Penn State the next.”

It also was a chance to raise money for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon – also known as THON. While the Penn State alumnus never had a chance to dance for 46 hours to raise money for pediatric cancer patients and research at Penn State Children’s Hospital, the walk would be just as physically strenuous.

The route from Washington D.C. to State College was straightforward: small town to small town the whole way, about 20 miles a day, spending the night at bed and breakfasts.

Stephens left Washington D.C. on Sept. 1 with a friend, who dropped him off in Rockville, Md. so he could start the walk outside the pedestrian-unfriendly capital beltway.

At times, he questioned whether walking was a safe thing to do and whether he was doing it for the right reasons. Other times, he waved to the drivers of passing cars and was impressed by the simple act of kindness that many of them exchanged simply by waving back.

On the sixth day, he was joined by two of the medical student design partners he will be working with at the College of Medicine’s new regional campus.

Stephens has been connected with Penn State since he was a child. His father taught religious studies at what is now the Brandywine campus and he graduated from University Park in 1986. He had an interest in medicine, but neither the GPA nor science background to pursue it, so he stayed on to get a master’s degree in exercise science.

He and his wife met during his undergraduate years. After living around the world during his 23-and-a-half years of active duty service, they returned to Washington, D.C. in 2006 and eventually purchased a small condo in Happy Valley for weekend getaways from the big city.


Dr. Mark Stephens is welcomed upon his arrival to Penn State by THON 2017 executive director Austin Sommerer. Stephens walked to raise money for THON. (Photo courtesy of THON)

“We really enjoy it up here,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to retire in a college town, and I thought what better place than Penn State?”

Stephens retired from the Navy as a family physician, holding multiple posts throughout the years, most recently as chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.

Stephens calls it a “huge stroke of good fortune” that his search for a post-retirement job in State College coincided with an expansion of the regional campus.

Stephens and colleagues are currently working with five student design partners to help build and design a new medical curriculum at the regional campus. The goal is to create a student-centered educational model focusing on early clinical immersion and guided inquiry. He will also do clinical work on campus at a new faculty wellness facility, collaborating inter-professionally with the College of Nursing.

Stephens doesn’t know exactly how much money he raised during his walk – nor does he want to. A friend of his son created a Web site for donations and put a goal of $50,000 to coincide with the fact that Stephens turned 50 this year.

“Whether it was a donation or a word of encouragement, the support of others has been wonderful,” he said.

Stephens’ original intent for the walk was to have time for personal reflection on planned topics – ranging from joy, patience and remembrance to doubt and hope – he found these themes served as a metaphor for his fundraising; connecting him to patients and families supported by THON.

“The roads do get long and sometimes lonely,” he said. “Even though I have driven those roads dozens of times, I feel that you need to walk the road to truly know the road. I don’t have cancer, so I don’t know firsthand what a family is going through.”

Now, Stephens is ready to close the door on one chapter of his life and move forward into the next. “I look forward to helping meet Penn State’s educational needs in University Park. I feel that I bring a skill set to help in multiple areas,” he said. “It’s going to be fun. While I know that I will miss the Navy, I am really glad to be back home at Penn State.”

-Jennifer Vogelsong


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