Natasha Pedone-Kahle, Shannon Davis

Natasha Pedone-Kahle, 38, of Madison, and Shannon Davis, 45, of Stoughton, are recipients of UW-Madison's Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Awards. Both will receive their bachelor's degrees on Saturday.

College is often an exciting four-year adventure for young undergraduates, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

For Natasha Pedone-Kahle, of Madison, and Shannon Davis, of Stoughton, graduation is coming much later than they intended.

Pedone-Kahle’s initial stint as an undergraduate was interrupted by marriage and family, then further displaced by working as a ballet teacher-turned-EMT and being a stay-at-home mom.

For Davis, a job opportunity, years of battling an undiagnosed case of lupus and becoming a mother disrupted her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

Both Pedone-Kahle, 38, and Davis, 45, are recipients of UW-Madison’s Outstanding Undergraduate Returning Adult Student Awards for continuing their education in the face of extreme challenges. They will be among this weekend’s graduates, and Davis will be a student keynote speaker at commencement.

Nominees for the award, which comes with a $1,000 scholarship, are recommended by a dean. The nominees then submit papers about their journeys and are interviewed.

From dancing to nursing

Pedone-Kahle taught ballet off and on for several years. It was a labor of love after she initially pursued a dance major at Columbia College in Chicago.

“I quickly realized that, to be a dancer, you don’t need a degree,” she said. “If you wanted to teach, sure, you could use the degree. But I also didn’t want to be a starving artist and I didn’t have the perfect body type to be a ballerina.”

But after years of teaching dance, something in her classes sparked the flame for Pedone-Kahle’s love of nursing.

She always found herself talking about health, wellness and preventative care to her ballet students, Pedone-Kahle said.

Because of that found connection between health and dance, someone in the community suggested that she join the EMS in Mayville, where she was living at the time.

“I was hooked from the moment I did it,” Pedone-Kahle said. “I found more and more that I love emergency situations. I love helping people and caring for people. And I realized, in taking care of people in those moments, sometimes it’s the worst time of their life and sometimes it’s not.”

She made the decision to return to school with the ultimate goal of attending a nursing program. Her difficult journey to a bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison began with a commute of more than an hour into the city, waiting for a bus to get to campus, then driving back after classes were over — resulting in more than three hours of travel, three times per week, for two years.

“Those two years were hard,” said Pedone-Kahle, who continued to work in Mayville as an EMT while attending school.

After completing those two years, Pedone-Kahle applied to the competitive School of Nursing at UW-Madison — and didn’t get in.

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But instead of being down and out, she pushed through and found ways to improve as a student.

“From there, I got my (Certified Nurse Assistant) license, then I volunteered at the Dodge County Health department working with ... girls that were felons going through their prenatal care and birth,” she said. “I tried to find ways that I could better myself.”

The second time around she got into the nursing program. After graduating, she will begin residency as an emergency room nurse at UW Hospital — exactly the position she hoped to attain.

Managing health, school

When Davis received her acceptance letter from UW-Madison, she recalls saying, “Why would they accept me? This is a prestigious college where smart people go.”

She had attended Madison Area Technical College more than 20 years ago, before leaving school for a graphic design job that she didn’t want to pass up. Then she had a family and got so sick that she couldn’t work anymore.

“(Being sick) kind of sidetracked that career for me,” Davis said. “I spent at least a decade really, really ill and not being treated because they weren’t sure why.”

But after being diagnosed with lupus, a chronic disease that affects the immune system, in 2012, she said, “I’ve been receiving treatment, recovered, had multiple surgeries, and started feeling like a normal human being again.”

Once she felt well enough to approach her dream of returning to school, Davis enrolled at MATC and completed credits there for two years before transferring to UW-Madison’s selective School of Social Work for her bachelor’s degree.

“The (bachelor of social work) program has about 1,000 applicants and accepts about 25,” Davis said.

Though the program was rigorous and a far cry from her previous work as a graphic designer, Davis was drawn to study social work after looking at her life and realizing that helping people is something she loved to do.

After doing some preliminary research, Davis realized that she could help people in several capacities with a degree in social work.

“As a BSW, I was in the criminal justice component because I have a minor in criminal justice,” Davis said.

But next year, in graduate school, her focus will be on administration and policy work in legislation to benefit children and families.

“If we can’t put policies in place,” she said, “the workers on the ground have very little power in what they can do.”

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