Campus Life

Student to wear two gowns -- for commencement and sister's wedding

University Park, Pa. -- It's a safe bet that Christina Sharkey will be busier than any other new college graduate this Saturday (Aug. 14).

She is one of approximately 2,168 Penn State graduates being honored in the Bryce Jordan Center at the 10 a.m. University Park campus summer commencement. However, after Sharkey graduates with three degrees, she has to change out of her cap and gown and into her bridesmaid gown, since she is the maid of honor that afternoon in her sister's wedding at The Arboretum at Penn State.

The Sharkey family's story gets better. Tina, as she is called by her friends and family, will be congratulated onstage for receiving degrees in biology, Spanish and international studies by none other than her father. Neil Sharkey is associate dean of research and graduate education in the College of Health and Human Development, and he often represents the college at graduate commencements. However, he had to ask a colleague to swap duties for this summer's 2:30 p.m. graduate commencement so he wouldn't have to rush out to give his older daughter's hand away in marriage. By making that change, he also could be the one to shake hands with -- or hug -- his younger daughter, the new graduate, in the morning.

"To be completely honest, it was one of the most exciting things to learn that my dad was going to be onstage for my graduation," explained Tina Sharkey. Unlike her older sister, who has a Penn State degree in early childhood development, Tina's degrees are not from her father's college.

"I actually witnessed him giving her a hug when she graduated," she added, "and he and I talked about how disappointing it was that we weren't going to be able to have that moment. So when he had to switch his schedule because of the wedding, and we realized that was possible after all, I was ecstatic. That will be such an incredible moment that wouldn't have happened otherwise, and that's symbolic of the other things that have happened that have come together to make this day so special."

The wedding and commencement dates were coincidental and a welcome twist of fate, explained Carrie Sharkey, mother of the graduate and the bride. Tina Sharkey had planned to go to medical school, but last spring, after observing an orthopedic surgeon's hectic lifestyle, she changed her career path and is now studying for the law school entrance exam. The switch freed her from some course requirements and she realized that to graduate she needed to complete only one more course, which, fortunately, was offered during the first summer session.

What no one realized then was that her graduation day would fall on the same day as the wedding of sister Katie Sharkey and Ken Mayo, which had been planned for months. That coincidence has turned out to be fortunate, too, because now out-of-town wedding guests -- including family, many from the Sharkeys' home state of California -- can attend both special events. The only change the family made was to push the wedding ceremony back a few hours, so the bridal party would have enough time between events to prepare for the other special occasion.

According to her mother, Tina Sharkey is a "total overachiever," having excelled in all three of her majors and studied abroad in both Argentina and Madrid, Spain. After she finished her last class in July she moved to Philadelphia and is working at a law firm before heading to law exam prep classes in the evenings.

She's also a thoughtful sister. Without her family's knowledge, Tina Sharkey wrote an essay for a State College radio station's contest to recognize the most deserving bride. Katie Sharkey had survived a 2002 auto accident at age 16 but was in a coma for several months, suffered brain damage and had to relearn how to do everything, including eating, swallowing, moving her muscles and communicating. Incredibly, she defied the odds and graduated from Penn State with a degree in early childhood development in May 2009. (Read more about Katie Sharkey's success story here.) Her fiancé -- a longtime, long-distance friend from Maine who she met two years before the accident during a summer camping trip -- proposed during her college graduation party. Tina Sharkey's essay won the contest, so this weekend Katie Sharkey will be wearing her "dream" wedding dress, the one she previously thought she couldn't afford. (You can read the winning letter online at, under the "Extra Info" link.)

While all new Penn State graduates and their families will have good reasons to celebrate this weekend, it seems the Sharkey family has four very special ones -- two remarkable daughters, a new son-in-law and another Penn State degree.

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Estimated as of Aug. 1, summer 2010 Penn State graduates will include four associate degree recipients at University Park and 200 at other campuses; 1,391 baccalaureate degree recipients at University Park and 305 at other campuses; 495 master's degree recipients at University Park, with 175 at other campuses; two new law degree recipients; and 278 doctoral degree recipients, all at University Park. Indra K. Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, will receive an honorary degree at the 10 a.m. University Park undergraduate commencement, where she also will serve as the commencement speaker. The graduate commencement will be held at 2:30 p.m.; both events will be held at the Bryce Jordan Center.

University-wide, Penn State will confer an estimated 2,846 degrees in summer 2010, bringing the total number of Penn State graduates to 663,406. More information about Penn State commencement is available at online.

This Saturday (Aug. 14), busy Tina Sharkey (left) will graduate from Penn State in the morning then precede her sister Katie (right) down the aisle as maid of honor at Katie's afternoon wedding. Credit: Jill Shockey / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 19, 2010