A Real Student’s Story of Overcoming Tragedy

In support of Kernel’s Optimism Project, we’re publishing real student stories of struggle, trials and optimism through it all.

“It was a lovely sunny day and I had just finished a day’s work experience at a magazine based in town. I came home to two police officers sitting in our front room with my mum.” Jessica told me

“My dad had been missing for a few days, and I thought they had found him unwell. I never would have guessed what happened next,” she continued.

For some students, the challenges become much bigger than aiming for a 4.0.

For some students, the thought of tackling lectures, a social life and saving money is enough to send your head swimming. The idea of having anything else standing in the way of a successful academic career is something that most will hopefully never have to tackle. For some students, the challenges become much bigger than aiming for a 4.0.

Jessica Davis, 21, a finalist at the University of Sheffield in England, knows all about having to stay positive and optimistic during some of the most difficult and emotional experiences we can imagine. In 2014, just three months before Jess was due to start university, she lost her dad to suicide.

“My dad had a long, tiresome battle with depression since before I was born,” she said, “and had stopped taking his medication, which was news to us. Little did we know that a possible side effect from stopping his tablets was suicidal tendencies.”

“The time between dad’s death and starting university seems like one big long blur of sleepless nights; lots of crying, lots of people saying ‘I’m sorry’,” she continued, ”Weirdly, I felt strong at that point and even went with my mum to identify his body and organize the funeral.”

“I didn’t want her to go through it all alone and, in a way, doing that made it real and made me deal with it head on— even though, thinking back, I have no idea how we did that. A month or so later I found out I worked hard enough to get into Sheffield University and I have never been so pleased. I knew I needed to get out —not in the sense of running away from my sad reality, but to have a fresh start and carry on with life as normal because that’s exactly what he would have wanted.”

With the start of the academic year looming, Jess had to make the tough decision of whether to stay at home and defer for a year, or to move four hours away to start a three-year course. She chose the latter.

Jess said: “I felt desperate to go to university and get away from all the grief before it consumed me entirely. It was never sad being home and I didn’t want to run away from his memories; it was more so I could avoid people looking at me in pity.”

Jess spoke of how, throughout her degree, one thing that kept her going was the thought of making her dad proud of what she had accomplished.

“I feel like starting university saved me actually; the thought of being around all of that and not having a single conversation that wasn’t about death or trying to piece together why this had happened drove me crazy. I felt like it was the right thing to do and it was.”

Jess spoke of how, throughout her degree, one thing that kept her going was the thought of making her dad proud of what she had accomplished. ”I have kept optimistic by working hard to achieve what I want and hopefully to end up in a job that I love. I want to make my dad and the rest of my family proud. Something that drives me the most to carry on being positive throughout my studies is to not let the negativity define who I am or my life.”

Having raced through university with high grades, a month’s work experience on a popular British women’s magazine and a never ending positive spirit, Jess is proof that staying optimistic and keeping yourself in a good environment will help anyone get through difficult times.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have met the people I have at university, luckily I live with and surround myself with people who understand depression and respected what had happened to me.”

She said, “Something that has kept me the most positive has been the support from close friends and family. I feel incredibly lucky to have met the people I have at university, luckily I live with and surround myself with people who understand depression and respected what had happened to me.”

Nearly three academic years down the line, and Jess is living proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the worst kind of tragedies happening outside the university walls, dreams are still within reach. I asked Jess about her top tips for staying optimistic and how she has managed to do so well at university.

“I think without my friends or family as a constant support network throughout all of this it would have been a million times harder. Surrounding yourself with positivity is the best possible thing to do.”

Jess said her dad was a very positive person too; “He taught me to stay positive and his last lesson (in a letter he wrote to me) was to achieve great things, to travel as much as I can and to be happy. That’s why I have ‘happiness’ tattooed on the inside of my forearm in memory of him and what an extremely happy wonderful smiley person he was, despite his battles in his own mind.”

It has now been two and a half years since Jess lost her dad, and she is adamant that, with time, things do get easier and it becomes possible again to appreciate new things and learn to live with it.

Spread Optimism at WE Day in NYC.

What’s got you feeling inspired? We’re looking for inspiring stories of optimism and it could be what wins you the VIP trip of a lifetime. Sign up through our contest page and share your story.

Here’s what’s included in the grand prize:
. 3 flights to NYC for 4 days (the 3rd flight is for a chaperone, if needed).
. 2 hotel rooms for 3 days (the 2nd room will be for that chaperone, if needed).
. $800 of spending money per person.
. VIP preferred tickets to WE Day on April 6th.

Update: the contest is now closed. Check the blog for more current chances to win!

Georgie Darling

Georgie Darling

Georgie Darling is a student journalist at the University of Sheffield who enjoys travelling, photography and writing. She is currently working towards achieving her NCTJ, BJTC and PPA accreditations and is eager to start her career as a journalist.