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May 2, 2014
A love for tennis, an unlikely job opportunity and a challenge handed down by her parents undoubtedly shaped Erika Leston into the person she is today.
Now, she has completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwest Missouri State University and looks back with no regrets at the impact those experiences and the University community have had on her.
This weekend she graduates from the University with her Master of Science in biology, and she has been accepted to a medical technology program at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I’m very thankful and grateful for everything I have experienced,” Leston said. “I’ve grown as a person, as a student and as an athlete. Northwest allowed me to do all of those things in one place.”
A native of Amora, Portugal, Leston developed a passion for playing tennis at age 6 and dreamed of one day playing her favorite sport in the United States. At age 16, it appeared her dream would become a reality when she earned a scholarship to play in the U.S., but her parents insisted she learn English before they would allow her to follow that dream.
When Leston failed to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and SAT after a couple tries, her parents presented her with a one-way plane ticket to England and insisted she learn the language there. Her flight left the next day, leaving the teenager no chance to say goodbye to friends.
“It was very hard for me,” Leston recalls. “I was depressed the first three months I was there, trying to understand my parents’ decision. I was living alone and didn’t have a way to come back.”
With only 100 euros to survive on, Leston needed to find a job. She swore she would never work in a fast food restaurant but soon relented and, because of that, began learning English.
“I started to learn the language through the customers and my coworkers,” Leston said, noting she learned English largely from coworkers with Down syndrome through their slower speech patterns. “My time there was pretty much talking to them. It was a wonderful experience, and I will never forget that. Today, I know how to speak better because of them.”
That experience helped Leston get back on her feet, she says. She continued studying for the tests, watching television and reading newspapers in an attempt to make her way to the U.S.
Then, in August 2008, she passed the TOEFL and SAT exams. Finally, she could fulfill her dream.
Not long before taking the tests, Leston, in her search for a college in the United States, had connected with Northwest tennis head coach Mark Rosewell. After watching video of Leston playing, Rosewell invited her to attend Northwest on a scholarship, and Leston was accepted to the University for the fall of 2008.
“I grew a lot and I learned a lot, but I am now grateful and I understand my dad’s decision,” Leston said, fighting back tears. “Even though it was hard on me, it was hard on them, too. I recognize that today, and I’m very thankful for it.”
But at Northwest, Leston grew more.
She played on the Northwest women’s tennis team for four years and was an all-MIAA selection in addition to carrying an 18-match win streak into the NCAA playoffs during the 2009 season.
She also became deeply involved in international student organizations and took great pride in raising Portugal's flag each fall during Northwest’s flag-raising ceremony at the International Flag Plaza.
“I was very pleased to have the wonderful international organization that we have on campus,” Leston said. “As international students, it means a lot to us. We don’t have family here, so Northwest makes us feel at home and welcome. That day when we raise our flags, it’s not only for our country but it unites all of us together.”
By the time Leston completed her bachelor’s degree in biology at Northwest in 2012 she was well on her way toward fulfilling another dream of becoming a medical doctor. After earning her bachelor’s she opted to stay at Northwest and complete her master’s degree.
“I have had good professors who have guided me throughout my undergraduate degree and my graduate program,” Leston said. “I’m glad that Northwest offers opportunities to job shadow on campus at the Wellness Center and at St. Francis Hospital. So we’ve had experiences and background that have helped me know what I want to do and where I want to go.”
Northwest helped Leston discover an interest in biology research and she completed her master’s thesis about Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA. She is continuing her research and hopes to learn more about why the bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, a trend Leston noticed as a student-athlete.
“The professors have been very helpful and very willing to help you succeed, not just throughout your degree program at Northwest but also in the future, and I want to represent Northwest the best I can wherever we go,” Leston said. “I don’t see my life without Northwest. If I did not have this experience, I would not know what I could be.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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