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Touching home: Tristen Sharp never lost sight of goals while fighting for her own life

Woman in cap and gown smiling

Pre-law student Tristen Sharp is graduating this May from Illinois State University after overcoming injuries she suffered in two serious accidents before college.

Editor’s note: This article is a follow-up to Illinois State alumni magazine’s August 2018 profile of Tristen Sharp.

Life has stood at the mound and thrown graduating Illinois State student Tristen Sharp everything in its arsenal.

She came harrowingly close to death’s door twice in a 20-month span before her first class. She’s gone through grueling rehab to relearn basic life skills and lives with painful reminders of traumatic accidents that permanently damaged her brain.

None of that deterred her from attending college and staying on track to pursue a career of fighting for others as a lawyer. This week, Sharp will earn her pre-law degree after three years of study and less than five years after the first of two horrific car accidents.

It would have been poetic to go from not knowing if she’d ever be able to put one foot in front of the other again to walking across the stage at Redbird Arena. But life tossed another curveball at Sharp and her fellow graduates. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced her final semester at Illinois State to an online structure and, subsequently, the University moved spring commencement online and offered graduates the opportunity to walk in winter commencement, which is scheduled for December.

She’s well-versed in dealing with such disappointment and making the best of drastic or sudden change. As she puts it, we all have a choice to either strike out or knock it out of the park. Sharp always swings for the fences.

“Trust me when I say it’s the unexpected that changes our lives, but we must learn to adapt and overcome,” said Sharp. Her story can serve as a motivator for fellow Redbirds during this time and beyond.

“To say she defied the word ‘quit’ would be an understatement, but, in all fairness, it is an accurate statement used to define Tristen,” her mother, Brandy, said. “Quitting was never part of Tristen’s vocabulary then, and it still isn’t now.”

Sharp has always been a firm believer in standing up for what’s right, and has envisioned a career in law for what her mother says feels like an eternity. Those feelings formulated into a plan during high school. Sharp would graduate with high honors, at one point earning MVP of her cheerleading team, and then receive an undergraduate degree in pre-law before heading on to law school.

On October 14, 2015, the girl who dreamed of fighting for others was in a fight for her own life. While crossing the street in her hometown of Mount Vernon, a vehicle struck Sharp and launched her into another car. She suffered a punctured lung, three pelvic fractures, a fractured sinus cavity, bilateral torn hip labrums, and a brain bleed so severe emergency surgery was needed to remove the right side of her skull to allow for swelling. Sharp was in a coma for nearly a month.

She clawed her way back over 18 months, working with tutors to complete her junior year before graduating from Mount Vernon with her peers. Her academic goals were still in place as she was admitted to Illinois State, yet she almost never got to campus. Just a few days after graduation in June 2017, she was in another fight to survive.

Woman smiling

Sharp was involved in many organizations while at Illinois State, including being a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha, the Criminal Justice Association, and CJS Leads.

Sharp was a passenger in a vehicle struck on Interstate 57 by another driver who has since been sentenced to 14 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections for driving under the influence of drugs. Sharp suffered three brain bleeds opposite the side of the injuries the first crash caused. She had a broken neck, broken nose, and facial cuts. She once again had to regain simple skills.

“It literally turned our whole life upside down and brought us to our knees,” Brandy said, “not once, but twice.”

Determined she would not delay the start of her degree, Sharp arrived on campus wearing a neck brace. She worked through Illinois State’s Student Access and Accommodation Services to arrange for a notetaker and began preparing for a career that could potentially spark memories of her own trauma at any time. That fact inspired her as she decided to specialize in personal-injury litigation.

“This is where my voice will be the loudest with all that I have overcome,” said Sharp. She will relate to their struggle, as she still has many difficulties.

Sharp works to retain information, reading every lesson or chapter numerous times. She has deficits in expressive language, semantic retrieval, and in her visual spatial skills. She also suffers from mild dyslexia, brain fatigue, and vertigo.

The biggest challenge is getting others to understand injuries they can’t physically see.

She openly shares her journey to explain the lifelong effects of a traumatic brain injury and help others realize that their decisions change lives.

“I don’t want anyone to ever experience what I went through the past four-and-a-half years. If my sharing my story makes someone think twice about their actions, then it was all worth it,” said Sharp, who has needed multiple surgeries. She recovered from one this past spring while completing online classes.

Professors and academic staff accommodated her needs, Sharp said, including Dr. Michael Gizzi. A Criminal Justice Sciences professor, Gizzi had Sharp in an introductory course. He was aware of the challenges she faced and watched her excel.

“I quickly learned how dedicated to learning she was,” said Gizzi, who taught Sharp in two additional classes and worked with her as his teaching assistant one semester. “I had never seen a student put as much work and effort into the class. Over the years, she has proven to be an excellent student. She writes extremely well and is always prepared. She is someone you just are happy to have in class.”

Sharp has been active beyond the classroom as a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha, the Criminal Justice Association, and CJS Leads. She was inducted to the Alpha Pi Sigma, National Collegiate Scholars, and Red Tassel Mortar Board honor societies. She volunteered throughout Bloomington-Normal and last summer, completed an internship with the Jefferson County Circuit Court in Mount Vernon.

A Dean’s List student, Sharp is awaiting acceptance at Southern Illinois University School of Law in Carbondale. She will spend three years completing her Juris Doctorate and hopes to complete additional internships.

But first, she will celebrate joining the ranks of Illinois State alumni.

“When we realized that Tristen would still be able to attend college, we still really didn’t know whether or not she would succeed or if she would succumb to the injuries she had sustained and have to accept that God’s plan for her may have changed,” Brandy said. “ISU was the stepping stone toward the unending possibilities that Tristen will reach for in her pursuit toward a law degree.”

Sharp is equally grateful for her Redbird experience that has prepared her for the bright future she has always envisioned.

“I knew who I was and what I wanted for myself,” Sharp said. “Those setbacks were the driving force to push me to complete my undergraduate schooling in three years with two traumatic brain injuries and show everyone that I can do anything that I put my mind to, and that I am going to get the life that I so desperately intended for myself.”

Learn more about Sharp’s story and follow her progress on Facebook at Tristen Tough.