Story and photo by Rex Oliver
People from all walks of life will probably experience some sort of tragedy in their lifetime. Likewise, many people endure trying times that may seem too hard to handle. Cheryl Sturgess, a junior Human Development and Family Studies/Pre-Medicine major from Tulia, Texas, is one of those people. However, Sturgess’s story is far more touching and life altering.
Sturgess grew up in an agricultural-based family—her father was a self-employed cattleman and her mother was a veterinarian’s assistant. She has fond memories from her childhood. Her dad loved to take her on horseback to work cattle. It is obvious that agriculture greatly impacted her life through time spent with her father.
One of the great lessons she learned was responsibility. She was taught that there would not be food on the table unless the work was done. “It wasn’t just an eight-to-five job,” Sturgess said. “It was sunrise-to-sunset, provide-for-your-family kind of job.” Agriculturalist values have been instilled in Sturgess’ life since adolescence. Her family ended each day with a meal around the table and where each member of the family knew the importance of working hard. They simply survived on the products of a good work ethic. Like most families, Sturges’s parents were the backbone of hers.
“I had great parents,” Sturgess said. “They were great role models.”
At 14, Sturgess’s life was rocked by a series of events that would catapult her into an adult life far sooner than she expected. In May of her 8th grade school year, weeks before her brother Brian graduated from high school, Sturgess’s mother suddenly passed away at home from what doctors would later determine to be a heart attack. As imagined, this left the Sturgess family in insurmountable grief.
Sadly, the tragedy in the Sturgess family continued. In August of the same year, her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was soon discovered to be malignant melanoma. Four short months later, he also passed away, leaving Sturgess to be raised by her aunt.
As if this was not enough turmoil for one person and family to handle, the tragedy unfortunately does not stop there. In April of the next year, while traveling back from a vacation in Arizona, Sturgess’s only living grandparents pulled over to the side of the road during a dust storm.
Visibility was so low drivers could not see other cars on the road. Her grandparents were rear-ended while parked on the side of the highway, causing an 18-car pileup. Once again, Sturgess was faced with saying goodbye to yet another piece of her family. The average person might find it tough to handle the things this young woman did. Although she experienced so much, Sturgess says that optimism is her greatest attribute and that keeps her going every day.
“I realized that I am the only person that is going to take care of me,” Sturgess said. “I’m accountable for myself.”
Sturgess also finds faith and the will to keep going through her pride in her family.
“If I don’t do it and continue, I won’t survive,” Sturgess said. “I don’t have anyone to fall back on. It’s the harsh reality of the exact situation I’m in. If I lead a life of failures and mistakes, people will just make excuses for me, and I didn’t want that.”
While representing the recipients at an AT&T scholarship banquet last fall, Sturgess shared her story with the group gathered. She gave a heartfelt speech, one that simply inspired strangers. Sturgess explained to them after going through the hardships she faced, she had two choices.
She could live a life in shadows, of regret and bad choices, or she could prosper and reach her greatest potential.
“I think a lot of how they would expect me to be if they were still here,” Sturgess said.
Jan Irlbeck, a friend of the Sturgess family, said she knew the path Sturgess would choose. Irlbeck watched her grow up, serving as a friend, mentor and as a motherly figure in Sturgess’s life.
“Sturgess didn’t grieve the same as someone else would,” Irlbeck said. “She grabbed the bull by the horns and continued to be successful, continued to disprove people’s assumptions.”
Sturgess continued to do just that. She caught people by surprise and reached success, all while maintaining the ideals set forth by her parents and her agricultural-based background.
“I realize that things aren’t always going to go the way that you planned,” Sturgess said, “but sometimes you have to be optimistic and make changes for the better.”
After Sturgess told her remarkable story at the scholarship banquet, she had a new surprise in her life.
Guy Bailey, Ph.D., president of Texas Tech University, was in attendance. Following the program, Bailey talked to Sturgess for a long time and offered to help. Monday morning, she got a call from Bailey’s office offering her an interview for an open student position in his office.
“One of my greatest accomplishments is this job,” Sturgess said. “I never saw myself in this position and this job helps me pay my bills and go to school, but it will also help me with my future.”
After she graduates from Tech, Sturgess plans to attend medical school to become a doctor. Many people find themselves lucky to even be in her presence, much less to be able to interact with her on a daily basis. This inspirational young woman, with humble beginnings in agriculture, will be touching the lives of many more people throughout her life, all of whom will be witnesses to her awe-inspiring strength and grace.