PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — More than 125 nominations were submitted across Central Illinois to be the 2023 Remarkable Woman. We feature four finalists this year, one being Jessica Tilton.

A professor, volunteer, pageant titleholder, and an example of success. That’s how people describe Tilton.

When she found out she was nominated, “That was really surreal, getting the email and just sitting down. I read it and then I went and actually made a sandwich and I read it again and it still didn’t seem real to me the second time.”

She was nominated by more than five people for the honor because of her work in the community and the challenges she’s overcome.

When Tilton was 20 years old, she got in a lava bomb accident. This led to a broken femur, sacrum, pelvis, and tibia, along with a collapsed lung. After two eight-hour surgeries, she realized she needed to take advantage of the time she has.

“To be here as well as I am, doing everything that I’m doing right now, is not anything I would have dreamed of back then. I was just taking it hour by hour, hoping to survive,” said Tilton. “It gave me the motivation to do everything because we don’t know how long we have on this earth and might as well make the most of it before we’re gone.”

Now, she’s an assistant professor at Bradley University and a color guard coach for the Washington Marching Panthers.

“She’s the ultimate example of success, going from barely being on the team to leading it. Probably one of the best students I’ve had in my 30 years here,” said the Director of Bands at Washington High School, Jim Tallman.

Tilton learned color guard throughout high school and now uses that experience as her talent when competing in the Miss Illinois/Miss America organization.

“I don’t ever think of it as, ‘Oh, now I have to prepare for Miss Illinois or Miss America.’ I just wake up and do it. I lived through my social impact every day, and helping people is something that I’m going to continue to do for the rest of my life, regardless if Miss America is present or not, said Tilton.

In her free time, Tilton donates gifts to dialysis patients at Fresenius Kidney Care. She does so because her grandfather went through dialysis and she knows how difficult a time it was for him.

“I know it was so hard on him, and I don’t want anyone to ever go through that. The reality is people go through it and we need more organs,” said Tilton. “So I advocate for the individuals who are going through dialysis.”

A dialysis technician at Fresenius, Edna Castro, said whenever she stops by, the patients beam with happiness. “When she comes here, she’s so friendly and she always talks with other staff and she always had that big smile.”

Her next goal is to become a doctor after getting her Master’s degree. “I’m most excited about the future, especially going into the medical field in an area where it’s there’s such a shortage and the demand on the job is so hard. That gives me the most pride to see that she’s going to become a doctor here,” said Tallman.

Tilton hopes to send the message that everybody has the ability to accomplish their dreams, as she has.

“From being in a wheelchair to learning how to walk again to walking across the stage with my master’s degree. It’s just been so rewarding to see all this hard work pay off. And if I’m able to do it and I’m just a regular person, anyone can,” said Tilton.