MACHIAS, Maine — As Sara Shurn-Banks of Machias dons her graduation gown this Saturday, puts on her cap and reaches her hand out for her diploma at the University of Maine at Machias, few in the audience will know the mountains of obstacles she has overcome.
“I never thought I’d get here,” the 35-year-old nontraditional senior, who has already started her graduate studies, said recently. “I think most people counted me out. Nobody expected much of me. I didn’t expect much of myself.”
Shurn-Banks has a background filled with danger and disaster that could easily have derailed her education permanently, but she credits UMM’s faculty and attitude of success for her personal accomplishments.
As a child, Shurn-Banks watched as her father was sent to prison for manslaughter. When she was just 16, she became pregnant and gave birth to her son during her senior year of high school. She married her child’s father and the relationship became abusive and violent.
“I ran away from an assault in the middle of the night in Louisiana with nothing but a shirt on. I ran back to Machias,” she said.
But trouble still swirled around her. “It took me a long time to fix myself after that. It took me years.” And even though she tried to attend classes at UMM, she admits she was lost, operating in survival mode. “For three semesters, I got straight Fs,” she said. But she never gave up. “I knew I needed college. I felt like going to school would save me, give me something to focus on, and provide hope.”
The most stability she had in her life was her mother, who in 2006 was diagnosed with lung cancer. Although her mother survived, the added difficulties of helping her through medical treatments took another toll on Shurn-Banks.
“By 2009, I was adrift again,” Shurn-Banks said. On one sunny, summer day, she hit a wall.
“I got in the car and intended on driving myself to a [psychiatric] hospital in Bangor,” she said. “I got as far as Blueberry Hill in Jonesboro. I stopped just to breathe. And I knew I needed to change. I knew I couldn’t give up on myself. I turned around and went home.”
Shurn-Banks said she crawled upward, small successes becoming large ones, but she also said she did not do it alone. She found strength in her partner, Michael, and she found support in the UMM faculty. This year, she obtained straight As.
“I always considered myself of adequate intelligence,” she said, flashing her huge, trademark smile. “I mean, I knew not to run out in traffic. But some of the professors at UMM really believed in me. They provided a number of moments — moments they may not even have been aware of — that finally allowed me to begin believing in myself. I began saying ‘Maybe I can do this.’” UMM staff helped her retest for classes she had failed; they helped her with time-management skills and motivation.
During this past year, Shurn-Banks has worked full time for social service agency, gone to school full time and raised four children with Michael.
“I look in the mirror and I’m amazed that I’m here,” she said. “It took hard work and tenacity but I now take a broader view and look forward in my life. Nothing is worth having, I learned, that doesn’t come without hard work.”
On Saturday, not only will Shurn-Banks graduate with a degree in business administration and entrepreneurship, but she will have finished one-quarter of the work toward her master’s degree in business administration. She hasn’t decided yet what she will do with it when she completes the degree.
“I truly think that the biggest lesson I learned is that everyone, everyone on the UMM campus is willing to help you succeed, if you only let them. I learned that the only way out of the cycle of poverty is through education.”
Commencement will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at the Frederic A. Reynolds Center of the University of Maine at Machias.