Robby Poffenberger | Assistant News Editor | @robby_poff
Photo credit: Laura Fox
World-famous author, blogger and burn victim Stephanie Nielson shared her inspiring story with over 1,600 hundred students and visitors in the Grande Ballroom on Oct. 1.
Many attendees, particularly latecomers, were hard-pressed to find seats, leading many to stand or sit on the floor.
Nielson has amassed hundreds of thousands of readers on her blog, Nie Nie Dialogues. Though she had already garnered a respectable international following in the blogosphere before her accident, the plane crash that covered over 80 percent of her body in burns and her subsequent recovery garnered worldwide attention and resulted in appearances on Oprah Winfrey, The Today Show and others. She is also the author of a New York Times-bestselling book, “Heaven Is Here: An Incredible Story of Hope, Triumph and Everyday Joy.”.
Nielson has a particularly devoted following among the Latter-day Saint crowd, particularly in Utah.
Matt Robins, vice president of Academic Senate and organizer of the event, said they looked to promote the event more outside the campus, especially because of Nielson’s local appeal.
“There definitely was some pull to get the community here and to show them what UVU has to offer students, and to show them that we are putting on great events,” Robins said.
With Neilson’s predominant fan base of mothers and older women, Robins said the event was also successful in bringing attendees who are non-traditional students.
“I saw lots of students who are mothers, who are married, who are single mothers here today who definitely enjoyed and benefitted from [Nielson’s] story,” he said.
Nielson was selected as a speaker after a poll on social media this summer, where she garnered the most votes of any potential speaker suggested by the UVUSA.
Although it wasn’t the main focus of the event, Robins said it has been the goal of organizers to make the speaker series as well-attended as last year’s speech by Elizabeth Smart, which drew upwards of 2,000 people.
“I just want there to be 2,000 people at every speaker,” he said. “I want to reach as many students as possible.”
Nielson, along with her husband, told in graphic detail the story of her accident.
She was in a small airplane in Arizona, accompanied by her husband and piloted by a friend, when it crashed shortly after takeoff and burst into flames, trapping them inside. The crash claimed the life of the pilot and left Nielson in a medically induced coma, where she stayed for three months.
After months of painstaking skin grafts and defying doctors’ expectations that she would lose her arms and legs, Nielson faced perhaps her most difficult challenge yet: allowing herself to see her reflection for the first time. It was an experience that she said left her shocked and sad.
“I didn’t even feel like I woman—I felt like a monster,” Nielson said. “My face scared me, and I knew if it scared me, it would scare my children.”
As the recovery process continued she determined that merely living through this experience wasn’t enough for her.
“I didn’t just want to be a survivor; I wanted to be a thriver,” she said.
One year after her crash, she hiked to the Y in Provo, followed by dozens of supporters. Another accomplishment after the crash was giving birth to a new daughter, Charlotte, in 2012.
Nielson said it was her faith in God and family that motivated her to never give up.
“After my accident, there were moments when I convinced myself that I would never be happy again,” she said. “I often despaired, but my faith and family nudged me forward when nothing else could.”
She closed her speech by encouraging listeners to choose happiness, which she struggles to do every morning, and to keep pressing forward.
“I do believe in fairytales,” she said. “I believe that ‘once upon a time’ is real, and ‘happily ever-after’ is true. It can absolutely come, it can absolutely be achievable, but only if you are willing to put in the time and effort that it takes to make that happen.”
When asked during a question-and-answer period if she would erase the accident from her life if she could, Neilson responded, “I would get in an airplane again tomorrow and do it all over again, because of the lessons I’ve learned and the people I’ve met.”
UVU sophomore Janessa Furness attended the speech after following Nielson’s blog for years and said it was unexpectedly affecting.
“Personally, for the last couple of months, I’ve gone through some really hard things, and it put things into perspective to see, ‘OK, wait, I can make those trials actually into something very impactful,’” Furness said. “It helped me personally on a level I didn’t think it would.”
Upcoming speakers for the Academic Senate Speaker Series include new UVU basketball head coach Mark Pope, artist Tom Holdman, and Aron Ralston.