"I was so surprised I laughed and cried at the same time," Shank said.
A panel of educators selected her from among 1,253 nominees from across the country.
Shank, of Hedgesville, W.Va., said that while she was surprised, she thinks she earned the award because she's always worked hard.
After 12 years in college, attending classes when she could afford them, going through two divorces and raising her son, she has a 3.47 grade point average.
"If you work hard enough at anything, it'll pay off though it may not be this visible," she said.
Shank expects to graduate in the fall and then wants to attend law school.
By then, she hopes to have her book, "Caging the Squirrel," published. It traces her challenges in overcoming abusive relationships and other problems.
She also plans to push the West Virginia Legislature to tighten the domestic violence laws in the state, and favors a requirement to hold a suspected abuser behind bars for 72 hours.
Shank said she thinks a cooling-off period would help the victim and the abuser, by providing the abuser with counseling on alternatives to lashing out with violence.
She also believes abusers should have to pay the cost of their incarceration.
At the national Mrs. America pageant last year, she was the only contestant not there with her husband. She said at the time she was separated and had a restraining order out against him requiring him to stay away.
Shank is a senior studying communications. She is captain of the debate and forensics team, a member of the National Organization for Women and president of the Pi Kappa Delta speech and debate honor fraternity.
She's won more than 60 debate and forensic awards and hopes to have 100 trophies by the time she graduates.
"If you win 100 trophies, they give you another trophy for reaching that goal," she said.
Shank credits Professor Joyce Webb with helping to turn her life around.
"I look at Dr. Webb as my family. She's like my mother and my sister and my best friend and my mentor all in one," Shank said.
"What a responsibility," Webb quipped back.
The panel selecting those for the academic honor considered a student's classroom work as well as extra-curricular activities.