Summer 2024
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Resilience Personified

Forced to leave her homeland as a teen – and faced with the sudden deaths of family members – school counselor Mirna Pani models for her students what it takes to overcome hardship By Sean Patterson

Mirna Pani (M23) was 10 years old when the war began. Her brother, 10 years her senior, was among the first to volunteer to fight in a civil war that ultimately dissolved her native Yugoslavia and left her hometown of Sarajevo – blockaded and bombarded with artillery and tanks for nearly four years – in ruins.

Perhaps that’s where her fascination with the resilience of children began. She herself was given no choice. It was either be strong and adapt, or give in to hopelessness and despair.

She didn’t know it then, but Pani was destined to work with kids. Today, she is fulfilling that calling as an elementary school counselor at Boones Ferry Primary School in Wilsonville, Oregon, where she does the very things – sits, listens and cares – that she longed for but didn’t receive as a refugee in a new land.

“What started me on this journey was this fascination I’ve always had with the fact that children are naturally resilient and more naturally able to adapt,” says Pani, a 2023 graduate of George Fox University’s Master of Arts in School Counseling program. “And then, being a survivor myself, I knew that I wanted to be in the mental health field, and more importantly, support the journeys of children and youth going through trauma.”

Pani’s own journey not only sparked an interest in coming alongside children, but birthed in her a passion to learn more about the healing and restoration process. What is mental fortitude? How does one find hope in adversity? How can we encourage in others the ability to be resilient – to overcome?

Even as the questions rattled around in her brain, Pani had to find answers to them herself – beginning with the war that resulted in her family fleeing their homeland, and later dealing with the sudden deaths of her father and identical twin sister.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she launched a career helping trauma-impacted youth, first as a residential youth counselor and later as a resource specialist, medical assistant and recruiter.

But the appeal of a school setting prompted her to enroll in George Fox’s school counseling program in 2018. Within months of enrolling, however, she second-guessed her decision upon learning her twin sister Lana – the person she was closest to all her life – was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

More devastating news hit the family in the summer of 2019, as Pani’s father died unexpectedly. She took more time off school to tend to family affairs, deciding she would return in January of 2020. It was then, however, she learned Lana’s condition had taken a turn for the worse: Her beloved sister was given only four months to live.

Pani decided to take the year off to help take care of her sister, all the while vowing she would eventually return to finish the program. After all, Lana had insisted on it.

“I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it,” she says. “In 2023, I walked across that stage, on May 3, with my degree. Lana died on May 4, 2020, almost exactly three years before. That was a bittersweet moment for sure. I know she was there that day, just not in a physical presence.”

Pani credits her experience at George Fox for equipping her with the skills to tackle the challenges of her position. “What I loved about George Fox beyond the amazing education was the fact they cared for me as a whole person,” she says.

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Summer 2024 Journal Cover

Cover of Summer 2024 issue

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