When a gunman's bullets knocked her down, her professors were there to lift her up

Surviving random shooting led recent graduate to deeper, more meaningful relationships with faculty members

Like many graduating seniors counting their final days on the Kent State University campus, Jillian Saliba opted to blog about her journey to commencement and the milestone of earning a degree. Yet, instead of waxing poetically about lifelong friends, academic challenges and how she had grown as an adult, Saliba was sharing a deeply personal story of surviving a drive-by shooting near Pittsburgh during winter break of her sophomore year as a Golden Flash.

"When I turned around in my seat, I saw a car driving around the bend fast, with two guns pointed out of its windows, shooting at everything and anything in sight. Houses, cars, it didn't matter, if it was in the shooter's view, it was getting shot," she wrote. 

"A split second after I turned my head and saw the car, my friend who was sitting next to me grabbed my jacket and pulled me down to the ground away from the window. During that same second, a bullet flew through the window, directly where my head was and glass flew at the back of my head. In that second, he saved my life."

Jillian Saliba on the Kent State campus prior to her graduation

Saliba's blog post – From Darkness to Light: Triumph Over Tragedy: A Survivor's Journey – provided the 2023 public relations graduate from Pittsburgh an opportunity to share a traumatic experience she had kept close to her heart and that had dominated her thoughts and emotions as she returned to Kent to continue her studies. 

In the aftermath, Saliba struggled with anxiety, rarely wanting to be alone and having panic attacks when driving due to previous car accidents. Coping with the trauma made her question if she should take a break from Kent State.

Faculty Members Step Up 

"I wanted to drop out and go home and then I started liking PR," Saliba said in an interview with Kent State Today. "And I feel like the teachers want you there sometimes more than you want to be there. And that makes you want to go more in a way, if that makes sense."

Saliba noted that the faculty members from Kent State's College of Communication and Information who were helping her to choose a major were also keenly in tune that there was something heavy on her heart. 

"I've never had teachers care about me to the extent that the professors at Kent have. You can tell they're all loving mothers. They just have such a genuine soul and they actually care."

Saliba pointed directly to two of her professors, Stephanie Smith and Stefanie Moore, who both teach full-time in the college.

"Stephanie Smith literally changed my life," Saliba said. "She taught me so much about myself, she encouraged me. All the professors have. They have all just been so sweet. They actually care about the students and understand things that they go through and how the world today is not how it was before." 

"Jillian is a remarkable young professional – courageous and resilient in ways that inspire me and all who know her," Smith said. "She is one of the hardest-working students I've encountered at Kent State. But more than that, she understands the transformative power of storytelling, and she is bravely sharing her story to help others who are experiencing adversity and trauma."

Jillian Saliba and Stephanie Smith

Moore also championed why being tuned in to how students are progressing means more than just grading their assignments.

"I care deeply about my students’ well-being and find myself cheering them on from the sidelines," Moore said. "Jillian had to overcome a lot of challenges throughout her college experience, and I’m so proud of everything she has accomplished. I watched her grow and develop skills personally and professionally and find her passions."

Deciding To Stay

As she progressed through classes and discovered her passion for PR, the idea of leaving Kent State didn't make sense anymore. 

"I finally felt that was where I was meant to be," she said.

Jillian Saliba Class of 2023

Saliba said she was also accepting that she wasn't alone as nearly half of students who attend college counseling sessions say they have experienced trauma, according to the 2023 annual report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University.

Then came that final assignment in her digital PR class with Professor Moore, which allowed Saliba to share her story through that blog post on the third anniversary of the shooting.  

To her surprise, the raw account of her experience resonated widely, receiving hundreds of views.

"I had other people reach out and tell me they had been through traumatic situations with gun violence," Jillian said. "They thanked me for sharing my story and said it helped them. Your words can have such a huge impact."

It's an impact she's making now in part due to professors who were angels in waiting.

"And I think that's what matters the most, is having professors who genuinely care about you," Saliba said. "They care about what they're going through and they want to help you not even help you pass the class. They want to help you as a person as well. And I think that's literally one of the best things about Kent is that their professors are genuine people who care about each student."

Saliba plans to continue the blog itself, Chic-Chatter, which has grown from a class assignment to a community of advocacy and strength to empower others, specifically college women and young adults. Once again, creating a positive response from a traumatic event that has stayed with her.

Access information on Kent State's mental health resources and Support.

Kent State Mental Health resources poster
POSTED: Wednesday, May 29, 2024 02:10 PM
Updated: Friday, May 31, 2024 09:28 AM
Eric Mansfield