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Anna G. Larson, Published December 15 2012

Shana's story: A winding road to graduation

FARGO - Shana Levin has traveled to Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia. She’s white-water rafted, rock climbed and sky dived. But nothing compares to the culmination of one particular adventure.

On Thursday, the 28-year-old will graduate from Minnesota State University Moorhead. Levin, a high school dropout, is the school’s health major of the year and was also nominated for this year’s YWCA Women of the Year awards in the volunteer service category.

“I can hardly hold it together thinking about graduation,” she says. “I’ve never been more excited for anything in my life. It’s been a long road.”

A lot has changed for Levin in 10 years. She dropped out of high school halfway through her senior year after experiencing bullying and poor treatment by instructors, she says. Levin had moved from Michigan, where she stood out academically and athletically as a gymnast. In Fargo, she was barely getting by.

Some teachers told her she wouldn’t succeed, but one instructor encouraged her, and Levin still remembers that today.

“That’s what motivated me to want to be a teacher, to be that voice in some kid’s life,” she says. “Just because they aren’t perfect doesn’t mean they can’t be successful.”

Levin moved out of her parents’ house when she was 18 and worked various jobs that didn’t require a high school degree, like serving and PRACS studies. She also experimented with drugs and alcohol.

“I was kind of a lost soul for a while,” Levin says. “I haven’t looked back since I changed many years ago.”

She eventually found a job as a restaurant manager, and she says the job gave her the confidence to complete her GED on the first try at age 21.

She attended Minnesota State Community and Technical College and then transferred to MSUM.

“As soon as I started college, it was completely different from high school. I loved it,” she says. “It went from being a nightmare to something that I never wanted to quit.”

Levin discovered a passion for travel after living in Europe for a semester. She began volunteering with international student organizations every summer, teaching English and working in orphanages and women’s homes in Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia.

“The majority of the people that you meet are happier than anybody that you’ve ever met, and that really put it into perspective for me,” she says. “I can’t imagine what I would be like if I hadn’t traveled.”

Levin’s favorite quote, “Your life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” sums up her approach to reaching college graduation.

“If I would’ve stayed where I was comfortable, I would’ve never gone to college,” she says.

Lois Mauch, a physical education and health professor at MSUM, met Shana two and a half years ago and saw her determination early on.

“Determination isn’t something we can teach,” she says. “Shana really stands out.”

Levin credits Mauch, among other instructors, and her parents for believing in her.

“MSUM has been so incredible to me,” Levin says. “I could’ve moved, but I always came back here after my travels because they really nurtured me. I am where I am because of how they treated me.”

Levin’s untraditional road to graduation instilled in her compassion, Mauch says.

“She’s got so much sympathy for her peers and her students,” she says. “She’s a perfectionist and works harder than anyone.”

After graduation, Levin plans to be an au pair in New Zealand for four or five months. She also applied to be a physical activity specialist for Royal Caribbean International since most teaching jobs don’t start until fall.

“I try not to have tunnel vision,” she says. “I want to try different things.”

Her dream job is to travel the country as an inspirational speaker.

“I’d love to inspire others to just be better. That’s why I want to be a teacher in the health area,” she says. “Just because you make some mistakes early on doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. If anything, it shapes who you are.”