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Someone once told Lonna Levin that if she’s not uncomfortable, then she’s not growing.
If that’s the case, she has surely experienced her ample share of personal, professional and academic development over the past few decades.
Though today Levin rubs noses with executives in her role in the communications department of a Fortune 500 company, a few decades ago she didn’t know how her life would turn out. After high school, she chose starting a family over attending college. In her 20s, though, her circumstances changed. She became a single mother of young twin boys with no college degree, no particular career aspirations and no benefits for her family.
She had worked as a bartender, a dental assistant and in a clerical role in a brokerage firm, but she hadn’t found a career that stirred a passion inside her.
When the brokerage firm closed after the market crashed in 1988, Levin knew she needed to find something quickly, so she applied to four local businesses, including a large insurance company headquartered in the Midwest where a friend worked. Perhaps because of her personal connection at the company, she was called in to take a test and ultimately was hired for an entry-level secretary position.
“I knew what it was like out there, and I knew what a good job was,” she says of her opportunity. “I was thrilled with the benefits.”
Her new role was inside the insurance company’s automobile claim department. Levin, who now has five children, was determined to make the most of her fresh start, driven by her desire to provide a good life for her family. “I knew deep down that no matter what I did, I would always do it to the best of my ability,” she says.
Her hard work and positive attitude helped her shine in her role, and within a few years, she moved up the secretarial ladder. She wanted more, though. “I wanted to have a job that allowed me some ability to own my work, like the claim reps I worked with,” she explains. “But I couldn’t be a claim rep because I didn’t have a degree.”
Levin eventually transferred over to the company’s payment plan unit where she continued to flourish. “I had an amazing supervisor who saw potential in me,” she remembers. “Even though you were supposed to have a degree, she convinced someone to take a chance with me, and I became a first-line supervisor.”
In this role, she worked to communicate very technical information about how insurance works to customers with little or no understanding of the intricacies of the industry. “It’s so complicated and can be so confusing,” Levin says. “I would take those numbers and do a breakdown, almost like I would write a paper for them and tell a story of their account.”
After 13 years in payment plans, she accepted a new communications role in the company’s public affairs department, something she learned she had a knack for when she began translating numbers into words years before. “When I got this role, I really felt like I had landed on something I love to do,” she admits. “It’s my dream job.”
Working as an internal communications specialist for the past four years, Levin writes, conducts research and provides strategic guidance for four vice presidents in her company’s Northeast market.
Though she was fulfilled in her work, self-doubt crept into her mind. Her brother and sister both were successful college graduates, and because she wasn’t she began to stop believing in herself. “When I got this job, I worked with other people who had degrees, and I didn’t,” she recalls. “It became very nagging. It was an issue of feeling like I wasn’t good enough.”
But at the same time, Levin’s strength of perseverance also spoke to her. “If I fail at something or fall down, I get back up and do what I can to keep moving forward,” she notes. “I never give up.”
She began to explore her options for education. Prompted by an email from her company about University of Phoenix, she eventually enrolled in 2008. She was after more than a piece of paper, though. “I needed it to be meaningful to me,” she says. “I needed it to have a purpose.”
Levin never had gone back to college, but she had continued her professional development over the years. She earned her certified professional secretary designation as well as a certificate in general insurance. She also took continuing education workshops offered by her company. If it added real value to her career, she would pursue it. Because she felt her University of Phoenix education was preparing her to succeed in the day-to-day with her job, she stuck with it.
“Everything that I do with school is applicable,” she says. She earned her associate degree in 2010, followed by her Bachelor of Science in Communications in 2013. She’s now working on her Master of Management with a Concentration in Consulting, something she says is relevant to the internal communications position she accepted with the company after spending more than a decade working in the payment plans unit.
She believes that stepping outside her comfort zone to pursue her education armed her with the skills she needs to work with executives. “I can walk in to meet with them now and feel like I am bringing something to the table,” she says. “I’m a thinking partner. I push back and suggest things. Five years ago I wouldn’t have done that. I know a lot of that has come from going to school and pushing the envelope for myself.”
Whatever the future holds, Levin will face it with the newfound self-assurance that she has gained from life’s uncomfortable moments. “I found my confidence and began believing in myself again,” she says in a strong voice. “Every class, every paper I write, every test I take proves to me that I can do it. This has rippled out into my career and personal life.”