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You Call the Shots: How A Survivor is Redefining Success as a College Student

I’m a sexual assault survivor. Wanna know why I’m telling you? My grades reflect that. I’m not that success story about a young woman who overcame it all and got a 4.0 GPA. My GPA is fine, but it’s not what I wanted — it’s not what I was capable of achieving. But I’m doing okay; in fact, I’m doing well.

I’ve seen it time and time again: students with extenuating circumstances letting their past tragedies define their future. Unfortunately, our educational system is not always forgiving when “life happens.” You try to take the time off; you try to incorporate “self-care” into your busy schedule. But then there are the agonizing days — days where you can’t get out of bed and would rather lose participation points than face another panic attack. I understand.

By the time application deadlines roll around — whether they’re for grad school, a job, etc. — you feel like you don’t stand a chance. Who can you ask for recommendations, who can really vouch for you? How do you explain away your GPA or that period of unemployment?

The answer is this: you can. And you must. When I was staring at my B average grades, knowing full well that the work I produced deserved A’s, I knew that I had to make up for this supposed deficit. I was slowly pulling out of my extracurricular activities because I felt that I still needed time to heal. What did I have to offer? How was I going to get out of this pit?

Help Yourself First

Nikki Petkopoulos Ulzi survivorI started advocating for myself. In the last two years, I’ve grown more in ways that I never would have otherwise. If anything, I accelerated my growth because of my experiences. I have grit, I have perseverance, I have empathy, I have resilience. Small problems don’t affect me anymore because I’ve been building myself up. Yes, I’m not perfect; there are days when I need to take a step back. But I’m strong.

At the start of every school term I make sure to explain to my professors the situation I got myself out of, just like I’m telling you. Sometimes I go into the grisly details if they’re accepting. I do this so I’m not at a disadvantage from the beginning. We work out how I can best succeed based on my strengths and weaknesses.

Through trial and error I’ve learned what kind of tool I am for companies, organizations, teams, etc. I thought to myself, “How can I make my story employable? How can I use it to my advantage?” For the longest time I felt that my future was robbed from me. That’s not the case at all. I was given the opportunity to illustrate my uniqueness. My story is different because it is mine. And I made it my mission to learn how to sell it instead of wallowing in it.

You might be thinking that your problems don’t compare to mine. They don’t. Whether it’s the loss of a family member, mental illness, financial troubles, they are yours alone. Companies want to see who you are at your best, but they also want to see who you are at your worst. Who are you really when (pardon my French) shit hits the fan? They want to see how you’re an asset when a company faces a problem.

Companies want to see who you are at your best, but they also want to see who you are at your worst.

It’s impossible to go through life without earning some scars. Some of the best people I know have experienced some sort of tragedy, but they turned it into an inspirational story. I encourage you to look at your resume, transcript, application — whatever it is, and find what makes you different. If your life was a movie, where is the rise and fall? The climax? The call to action? Reflect on your shortcomings, then overcome.

I have gotten more job offers this year than at any time in my life, which surprised me because I thought I was losing steam. But the more I networked and reached out, the more I told my story, the more I resonated with people who wanted me on their team.

No matter where you are in life, you can overcome. The first step is taking that initiative. I’d be lying to you if I said it was easy. I’d also be lying if I said it’s not worth it.

If you’re interested in sharing your story or getting involved with Ulzi or Ulzi Stories, you can email

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