Karessa Royce does not wish to be defined as a victim. She has no use for dwelling in the past.
Royce made that clear in her TEDx talk at UNLV this summer.
The audience sat silent and riveted as the 22-year-old hospitality student spoke of her profound “life change” that began Oct. 1, 2017, at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas. That night, a hollow-point bullet entered through her left shoulder and fragmented in her chest, collapsing her lung and breaking her collarbone and shoulder.
The TEDx talk was only the second time Royce had spoken publicly about the shooting. (The first was at a UNLV remembrance ceremony a month after the shooting.) She carefully framed her experience in terms of her own healing — steering away from the incident itself and leaving the audience with a message that was intensely personal.
“I always want to be careful and considerate of others who have been through similar situations,” Royce later said. “Through my TED talk, I had the ability to hone my voice and choose how I wanted to share my story.”
More than anything, it’s a story about transformation.
During the first weeks of recovery following an initial surgery, doctors told the Las Vegas native to anticipate a second surgery, months of physical therapy, and post-traumatic stress counseling. What Royce did not expect was the tectonic shift of mind and spirit that was to come.
“I started saying ‘yes’ to things and believing in myself, even on the days that I was afraid,” she explains. “We all need to be reminded when we are stretched thin that we can be elastic and bounce to newer heights.”
For Royce, the unexpected positives that came in the wake of the tragedy arrived at a time when ambivalence was starting to set in. The college senior admits that, weeks before the shooting, she felt her studies were becoming a chore and contemplated dropping out.
Even as the days passed and Royce made significant strides in her recovery, she had mixed emotions about returning to UNLV. The Oct. 1 tragedy had shaken the Las Vegas’ hospitality industry to its core, and Royce knew the topic would be addressed in her hospitality classes. She feared such discussions would be an emotional trigger.
But Royce couldn’t shake what she calls the “magic” of the hospitality industry and was determined to not let her traumatic experience strip her of her passion. She eagerly returned to study at the Hospitality College in spring 2018.
“The first day I came back to school, all I could think about was how I could have not been here,” she says. “It is such a blessing to be alive, and it is a blessing to receive an education.”
Her strength and perseverance did not go unnoticed. During the semester, the college asked Royce to join its safety committee as a student advocate, where she’ll play a role in developing policies and procedures for Hospitality Hall. Then in May, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority honored Royce with a 2018 Hospitality Heroes award.
“I can’t think of anyone more deserving to receive this award than Karessa,” says Hospitality College Dean Stowe Shoemaker. “Her unshakeable spirit inspires every person in this college, this university, and the city. She embodies what this industry is all about.”
One year after the incident, Royce has learned to be flexible with her future. She’s immersed herself in her education and has switched her career focus from festival event planning to law, leaving open the option of going into hospitality academia. “The faculty and staff in the Hospitality College pour their hearts into students, and they really make our time at UNLV meaningful,” she says. “To be able to pass that on to other students is really important to me.”
For now, Royce is content to stand for something unequivocally positive. “I know my experiences may change my direction,” she says, “but I won’t let them define me.”
She is trying her hardest to say “yes” to life every day — and she’s just getting started.