As a teenager struggling through her senior year at West Orange High School 20 years ago, Melissa Shank never would have imagined that one day a “B” would cause so much frustration.
“I failed math like seven times. I couldn’t pass algebra to save my life,” Shank said of her high school days in Winter Garden, just west of Orlando. “I dropped out my senior year, three days before my graduation.”
This fall, Shank, 37, began classes at Rollins College in Winter Park after graduating with honors from Valencia College with associate’s degrees in general studies and business administration.
She almost made it through her two years at Valencia with a spotless GPA, save for that single pesky “B” in an honors course.
“I came home and I was crying about how I failed and talking about how I wanted to quit school,” Shank said. “When I told my mom it was because I’d gotten a B, she told me to shut up. If I’d done this (college) directly out of high school, I wouldn’t have done as well as I did.”
Shank plans to pursue a business degree at Rollins while possibly minoring in education.
“I plan on owning my own business and, no matter what field I’m in, I want to know how each part of it works,” she said. “My goal is to earn a doctorate and be a professor when I’m old and don’t feel like working in corporate America anymore.”
However, Shank’s path to college had more than its share of twists and turns. The Michigan native moved to Florida at age 6 and grew up in a single-parent household starting at age 13.
“My mom didn’t have a college education, so I didn’t have a lot of help with school,” Shank said. Although her mom established a college fund for her and her younger brother, Melissa eventually lost interest in school.
“I was very short in high school, and I got bullied,” Shank added. “My mom saw that I started to slack off at school, I had counselors telling me I had to take my math classes again, and I just gave up. She let me use my college fund to buy a car.”
Shank moved out of her house at age 17 and married at age 19. Despite her best efforts to successfully strike out on her own, Shank made some missteps on the way to adulthood, including a felony drug trafficking conviction that resulted in 10 years of probation.
Although Shank eventually earned a real estate license and worked steadily at a variety of jobs — including managing several GoldMax cash-for-gold stores in the Orlando area — she found it challenging to secure suitable employment after being laid off about five years ago.
“Every job I had, I excelled at and I had a lot of experience,” said Shank, who had also earned her GED in January 2012. “But I had also been laid off, I had a felony, and no education. I get it…people are going to hire the person without all the baggage.”
After learning that CareerSource Central Florida was awarding scholarships worth up to $7,000 for qualified candidates to pursue training in a WIA-approved (Workforce Investment Act) program, Shank enrolled at Valencia College in 2014.
“I went in there thinking, ‘I haven’t done this in so long, I just hope I get C’s and get my degree,’” Shank said. “I never expected that I’d want to be as involved as the students who had gone in there straight out of high school.”
Shank said the life experience she acquired during the intervening years helped make her more receptive to math classes and concepts that had previously baffled her.
“With all the cooking I did, I got used to using fractions or Googling stuff when I needed to figure out a percentage of something,” she said. “I think anyone can learn math when you’re ready to receive it. I was always good at math but didn’t know it.”
While Shank took on a full-time course load at Valencia while working part-time, she plans to flip that equation at Rollins: this fall, she will take two evening classes at Rollins College’s Hamilton Holt School.
“Their full time (course load) is three, so this is a little under that, just because I am looking for full-time work and I don’t want to overextend myself. I might do three classes in the spring depending how this goes,” said Shank, who has also calculated the time it will take to earn her bachelor’s degree. “I’ve already planned it out that two classes a semester — including summer, if I can get summer courses — I’ll be good in 2 ½ years.”
While the money needed to go to college had been a concern, Shank has done well in securing a combination of grants and scholarships from her college, along with state and federal sources. With the aid she has for college, Shank won’t need to take out any loans.
Due to her prior felony conviction, Shank was also surprised to learn she qualified for federal grants. That’s why she always encourages others to apply for scholarships, even if they think their chances of receiving an award are slim.
“I’m a huge proponent of scholarships,” Shank said. “I don’t care what your situation is, you should apply. How do you know you’re not going to get one if you don’t even try?”
Shank knows first-hand the reality facing those in the workforce with just a high school education. She’s not shy about making that point to her 16-year-old daughter, who is enrolled in the engineering magnet program at Apopka High School.
“I asked her, ‘Do you want a job in a field where you can make good money and be comfortable? Then you need to go to college,’” Shank said.
This story is part of Florida College Access Network’s “Pathway Series”, a year-long project that seeks to highlight the diversity of experiences students face as they pursue postsecondary degrees. Each student will be profiled at the start of the school year, during the fall, in the spring, and during the summer following the conclusion of their first year.