Joseph Peter Ostunio, University of Tennessee College of Law Second-Year Student
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert F. Kennedy
October 1, 2017: exactly two years ago today my life changed forever. The previous three days and two nights leading up to that Sunday evening two years ago had been filled with fun, friends, and amazing country music. As we entered the Route 91 festival grounds for the last time, the beautiful Las Vegas skyline gleamed in the background with the Mandalay Bay and Luxor towering over us. We were filled with joy and excitement despite wistfully knowing that everyone had to be back at school and work the very next morning. Little did we know that none of us would be reporting to class or work the next day and in only a few short hours, we would be running for our lives trying to escape what can only be described as a complete massacre.
When the sound of bullets first began, few even noticed; it wasn’t until the music stopped—quickly followed by the stage going dark and Jason Aldean exiting the stage—that we knew we needed to drop to the ground for safety. As our group crashed to the ground, my friend I’d been hosting for the weekend, Kristin Babik, who at the time was a third-year law student from the University of Florida, was shot in the back. Luckily, together we made it out of the venue alive.
After the shooting, I neglected all the warning signs that were right in front of me. The biggest sign was a significant decrease in my logical reasoning skills, followed with long and short-term memory loss. Despite all this, I started from scratch and retaught myself the skills needed to achieve a decent LSAT score. While still ignoring the warning signs, I bowed to the pressure of those around me and accepted admission to The University of Tennessee School of Law. In all honesty, I probably should have sat the year out and focused on taking care of myself and earning a higher LSAT score.
Nonetheless, quickly after I arrived in Knoxville, things went from bad to worse. I faced a laundry list of issues both inside and outside of school. Finally, around the 1-year anniversary of October 1, I broke. The anniversary hit extremely hard, and it didn’t help that Kristin was dealing with even worse issues. Sometime before finals during the fall semester, I had my first nervous breakdown. Sadly, I didn’t snap out of it in time for finals, because I didn’t know what was wrong with me; I thought all of it was completely my fault.
The following semester I hoped for a fresh start, but things quickly returned to the way they were. I started EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) a treatment for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and that helped, but I was still in denial about my other issues. On Easter weekend, I had my second nervous breakdown, which was followed by panic attacks. I decided to go home for a week right before finals and reboot. Luckily, thanks to friends and family in both Nashville and Las Vegas, I managed to get through it before I sat for finals. Following finals, however, I didn’t have much time to rest and recover. I finished finals and quickly turned around to catch a flight to Europe to study counterterrorism, international arbitration, and comparative corporate governance law in Venice. While my time in Venice was amazing, I was incredibly busy and was not able to fully continue my healing process. Needless to say, these past two years have been a whirlwind.
However, if these past two years have taught me anything, it’s the meaning of resilience. The Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” In essence, resilience is a quality that is developed by someone who is knocked down or transformed by some kind of adversity and is made just as strong—if not stronger. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in these past two years is that resilience is an incredibly valuable quality in a leader. Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law Professor, identifies resilience as a distinguishing characteristic of leadership in her book, Lawyers as Leaders. Specifically, she says, successful leaders in the field of law are distinguished by “a strong sense of their goals, resilience in the face of setbacks, and a capacity to learn from advice and from experiences that chance has thrown their way.”
Before entering law school, and while studying for the LSAT, I become very connected with the survivor community. Call it survivors’ guilt, but my main goal in connecting with the community was finding ways to help those in need. An opportunity finally presented itself when it became apparent that several survivors were having issues with getting the academic support at their Colleges and Universities that they so desperately needed. I saw a need and, in response, created a non-profit organization called The Route 91 Foundation. The Foundation was created to help provide support to victims of mass shootings, to provide scholarships, to promote lobbying for common-sense gun legislation, and to help survivors access needed services. In the end, I managed to help several students from all over the United States get the academic support they needed. One student managed to get her tuition reimbursed and her transcripts wiped clean. Other students managed to reclaim their scholarships, and some were even allowed the option to repeat their midterm and finals. In the end, every student that came forward received academic support. The Route 91 Foundation, however, has had to be put on hold for several reasons, including conflicts of vision among its original board members and my enrollment in law school.
Regardless, these past two years have been a journey to say the least. It has tested my limits beyond anything I ever imagined I was even capable of handling, and it has taught me that resilience is an invaluable quality in both life and leadership. Yasmin Mogahed, an Egyptian-born American Muslim scholar, summed it up perfectly when she said, “resilience is very different than being numb. Resilience means you experience, you feel, you fail, you hurt. You fall. But, you keep going.” And I couldn’t have said it better myself.