It would have been poetic for Tristen Sharp 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. She is a survivor of two car crashes that put her on death’s doorstep twice in a 20-month span prior to her first class at Illinois State.
But life tossed another curveball at her and her fellow graduates. The coronavirus (COVID-19) forced her final semester to an online structure. Spring commencement was also moved online, with the offer for May graduates to walk in the upcoming December ceremony.
Sharp is well-versed at swinging for the fences when a difficult or drastic change comes her way.
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. In May, Sharp earned her pre-law degree after three years of study and less than five years after the first accident.
“Trust me when I say it’s the unexpected that changes our lives, but we must learn to adapt and overcome,” said Sharp, who was featured in the August 2018 issue of Illinois State. Her story serves 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.”
Sharp has always firmly believed 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, where she earned high academic honors and was MVP of her cheerleading team.
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 breaks, 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 with her peers. Her academic goals were still in place as she enrolled at 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.
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 her previous injuries. She had a broken neck, broken nose, and facial cuts. She once again had to regain simple skills.
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.
She openly shares her journey to explain the lifelong effects of a traumatic brain injury and help others realize that their decisions change lives—a mindset that is ever so important in today’s society.
“I don’t want anyone to ever experience what I went through the past four-and-a-half years. If 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.
A Dean’s List student, Sharp’s next step will be attending a law school to continue her pursuits. She is 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.”
Graduates share UNEXPECTED life lessons
Despite the disappointment of classes abruptly transferring to an online format and a delayed traditional commencement celebration, graduates from the Class of 2020 have found hope in trying times, strengthening their perspective about how Illinois State prepared them to thrive in an ever-changing world.
“I’ve learned that people can adapt very fast to new situations. With everything shutting down and social distancing going into effect, the world, I believe, has become more creative in ways to connect with people and show people that they care. Children crafting and putting their artwork in the windows of their homes, car parades down someone’s street to show their celebration for a birthday, and much more. It brings a great big smile to my face to know that nothing can stop people from showing their love and care for one another. Our world will grow for the better, and we will stand strong once again. Stay safe and stay healthy.”
Emma Kolb, Recreation and Park Administration
“I have learned the value of a nation and a world coming together toward a common goal because this pandemic could not be fixed without everyone’s efforts. I’ve learned how much we as humans rely on daily social interaction. But more importantly, I’ve observed the persistent nature of the human spirit to press on and make the best of our scary situation. I think it is also more evident now than ever how much we as humans rely on various forms of art to bring quality to our lives and thus, how important the fine arts are.”
Ashton Estell, Music
“I have learned patience throughout this time and that it is OK to not have answers to everything. That it is OK to have plans change, because that’s what life tends to do sometimes. I learned to be flexible and to find the positives and light in every day. Society will be forever changed. I sure hope that people now understand how important hand washing and infection control really is. It’s the little things that help prevent illnesses. I’m happy society has become aware of that and will use this knowledge to be more mindful in the future.”
Anamarija Dimevska, Nursing
“The one thing I have realized during lockdown that I want to remember forever is the way I have felt during this pandemic. Appreciating each moment and memory I have created at ISU, for the faculty and staff who went above and beyond day in and out, for the community that feels like home away from home. My biggest advice to other Redbird students who are hearing this right now would be never take anything for granted because you never know when it will be your last football game, your last Festival ISU, your last walk across the Quad. Don’t blink. Live in the moment. And appreciate your life as a Redbird before it’s gone.”
Ali Rasper, Journalism
“I am truly appreciative of the technological and educational advancements that our society has made in the field of education. We need to come together more than ever and realize that we are part of something amazing.”
Bradley Kolar, Middle-level Education
“I have learned how good humanity is, and I wish it didn’t take a pandemic for others to do such amazing things for people. America comes together during times of crises like no other, and I think ISU is a microcosm example of that. My teachers have worked so hard to keep our classes going and are more approachable and reachable than ever. You can tell it isn’t a paycheck for them, it’s love of the students. I am proud to be a Redbird.”
Jacob Hopper, Horticulture and Landscape Management
“I have learned that everyone is there for one another. No one is alone, and we’ve received nothing but help and resources from ISU. This is an unknown time and we’re all learning new things each day.”
Laurence Bender, Management and Organizational Leadership
“My hope is that after this historic moment, society will have greater appreciation for the little things—the fine arts, creators, and the everyday heroes that are our essential workers, emergency personnel, medical professionals, teachers, and more who continue to work so that we can continue to learn, grow, and live. Compassion and understanding are some of our greatest tools through these events.”
Wesley Skym, Theatre Teacher Education
“Life’s circumstances will continue to change and test us, without fail. How we react to what we cannot control and how we treat one another will determine our ability to overcome the inevitable. We all need a little more faith, hope, and love!”
Victoria Kate Lee, Corporate MBA
“I’ve worked at ISU for five-and-a-half years and it has always been enjoyable, but seeing how quickly everyone came together to ensure the success of our students has been a really positive and uplifting time for me—making me even more proud to be a Redbird! This time has been stressful, but for me personally, it has reminded me of all the great things in life! It’s easy to get in the habits of our daily life and to forget about all that we can be grateful for, but this situation has helped me slow down, reflect, and truly appreciate all that I have.”
Abby Weber, Master’s in College Student Personnel Administration
“Nursing is a very close-knit major, which also makes for a great support system in our current situation. We have all been in contact with each other and leaning on each other for support. Completing my degree in nursing has taken a lot of self-discipline. Growing up on a small dairy farm in southern Illinois has taught me a strong work ethic, which I have applied while learning from home. To study from home is difficult at times, as I would rather spend time with my family. I feel I have learned how dedicated I am to my major and how I hope to be the best nurse possible by doing everything I possibly can for school and staying educated on the current pandemic.”
Kendall Lintker, Nursing
“I have learned to flow with the uncontrollable. Life is a big sea man, and it will present waters that may alter your original route. If you make sure your spirit has a strong foundation, you will never fall off your boat.”
Antonio Crossley, Mass Media Communications
“I have learned that myself and society have adapted quickly to this new way of living and being able to push forward because of the conditions. In times like this, it is crucial that we all work together in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel and make the most of the situation.”
Erik Benson, Finance and Risk Management and Insurance