Inspiring high achiever awarded UOW's most prestigious prize

Inspiring high achiever awarded UOW's most prestigious prize

Double lung transplant recipient turned active organ donation advocate awarded the Chancellor Robert Hope Memorial Prize.

At an age when most teenagers are focusing on their HSC, 16-year-old Jessica Sparks was lying in a hospital bed with end stage lung disease.

After a four-year wait, the call finally came that the former representative netball player would receive a life-saving double lung transplant.

“I had come to a point where I had accepted that if I went, I went. To be in that position and to have come through that it gives you a whole new perspective on life. All these hopes and dreams that I had before became possible again.”

“I would not be here if it wasn’t for the generosity of a donor and their family.”

The 24-year-old, who graduated this week with a double degree in law and journalism, was born with cystic fibrosis, a chronic, life-shortening genetic disorder that mainly affects the lungs and digestive system.

Jessica will never know who saved her life, but she is now a passionate advocate for organ and tissue donation and has started her own organisation, SparkingLife, dedicated to increasing awareness of the cause.

During her time at UOW, Jessica mentored other UOW students in economics, maths and English through the PASS program, was involved in student journalism newsroom UOWTV, and was Vice President of UOW’s Law Students Society.

While she was studying Jessica also established herself as a bright young leader in the wider community.

In 2013, she was named Wollongong Young Citizen of the Year and Illawarra Businesswoman of the Future.

The following year, she received a Winston Churchill Fellowship to investigate information and education barriers to organ donation in Australia, and was awarded the Australian Press Council Award for Journalism.

The same year, she interned for ABC News 24 and ABC Illawarra and was chosen to work on a special UN study on protecting journalism sources in a digital age.

Among the other strings in her bow, the ambitious young leader has also founded the Illawarra Young Women’s Network, served as media manager of the Oaktree Foundation’s Live Below the Line campaign tackling poverty and acted as a UN Youth Australia representative.

Putting her studies into practice, Jessica has also penned articles for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph, among others, and gained hands-on litigation experience as a cadet at Wollongong-based firm Kells Lawyers.

This is all before she has even graduated. In acknowledgment of the outstanding leadership, academic performance and commitment to the community, Jessica was awarded the Chancellor Robert Hope Memorial Prize at this week’s graduation celebrations.

As the only prize awarded by the University Council, it is considered UOW's most prestigious accolade.

Jessica told the Illawarra Mercury she was "humbled" by the award.

"It is an honour to receive this award named after someone who has made such an impact on this university, the legal profession and whose values I greatly admire and I hope I’m emulating in the work I pursue, in whatever time I have," she said. 

Jessica told the Mercury she’d benefited from a fantastic team at the university, including inspiring teachers and firm friends.

"We’re very fortunate that right here in Wollongong, we have one of the best modern tertiary institutions internationally,’’ she said.

"Staff and students are constantly researching and engaging in absolutely incredible, often world-leading projects.

"I’ve seen first-hand that here, you can enjoy the freedom and opportunity to learn, discover and create, and innovate on a platform that has global competitiveness and global reach.

"It’s a place primed for pursuing potential." 

Jessica is pursuing her Masters degree, but due to ill health she is again on the transplant waiting list. 

"I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again, I just need to fight long enough to survive another transplant," she told the Mercury.

"You can’t wait for ‘comfort’, you can’t wait for ‘easy or ‘certainty’ to be handed to you, they may never come.

"I’ve learned to get out there and forge my own path and adventures, never take opportunities for granted, keep striving for and achieving goals, and live life in the deepest, richest, most productive way I can, no matter the battles being faced."