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Student Success Stories - Stephanie Littlehale

Stephanie Littlehale, an international affairs major with a minor in legal studies, will graduate in May 2012 with a GPA of at least 3.8, an admirable accomplishment for any student, but even more remarkable considering some of the challenges this first-generation college student has overcome since high school. As a high school student, Littlehale found herself at one point homeless with no money. She worked three jobs, legally emancipated herself at age 17, and yet graduated valedictorian of her class at Georges Valley High School in Thomaston in 2008. She now lives with a supportive family in Rockport and has been working for a caterer while attending UMaine classes online and at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast. Since beginning her studies at the University of Maine, Littlehale has been named a Mitchell Scholar, a Maine Seacoast Mission Scholar, and the winner of the UMaine Department of Political Science’s annual Graton Constitutional Essay Contest. The Phi Beta Kappa honor society inductee also spent a semester abroad at the American University in Bulgaria in Blagoevgrad and founded and became president of diversity awareness group at UMaine, the “University Change Agents,” in addition to working with the campus “No Place for Hate” group, the Wilde Stein organization and other diversity-related projects associated with the UMaine Multicultural Center and Franco-American Center. She was the nomination for the College of Liberal Arts’ international affairs candidate for Outstanding Graduating Senior.

Your personal circumstances suggest both strength of character and determination to have been as successful as you are given some of the challenges as a teenager. What motivated you?
I grew up in a large family. With three brothers and two sisters, I was always trying to find my place. As the second to youngest, I watched as my siblings made mistake after mistake. I told myself I’d be different; I wanted so badly to be different. My resolve to become something, was cultivated by my teachers at school, who knew my family circumstances. Every one of them had their chances. They blew them. I was determined to make use of every opportunity that came my way, so that I could get out.

Tell us a little about your struggles and challenges.
Neglected by my father, and taken away from my mother, the Department of Human Services placed me and three of my siblings with my grandmother. I missed my mother, and wondered about my father. It seemed as though the rest of my siblings felt the same. They, probably quite justifiably, lashed out. It wasn’t until I was in the sixth grade that my mother moved back in the area. And finally, at 14 years old I decided that I would try living with my mother. Unfortunately, I found that living with her was not as healthy an environment for me either. So I left.

Living on your own at 16 and 17 years old is not an easy experience in itself. At first, I didn’t feel as though I had anywhere to go. So, I parked in the Walmart parking lot and curled up in my back seat. It was September then, so it hadn’t gotten cold yet. I didn’t want to go to the homeless shelter simply out of pride. That was hard. I felt hopeless and unsure of what would happen to me.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do is make the choice to become emancipated. The process itself was grueling and time consuming. In addition, emotionally, it was quite difficult. Facing my biological mother in court and telling her that, at least under law, I didn’t want to be her daughter anymore was not an easy experience. In the end, I had to do what was best for me, and this was what I needed to do in order to survive. Living on my own was certainly not easy. Juggling school with work was particularly difficult. I was stressed, and had little time to participate in senior activities.

My life changed when Lorraine Knight, my former middle school teacher, contacted me. I had always been quite fond of her. When her and Chris found out that I was living on my own and emancipated they immediately got in touch with me. At first they offered to give me odd jobs to make some extra money. When Chris found out that I had no clothes, they took me shopping. Finally, they offered to let me move in with them. After four years (this month!) I consider Chris and Lorraine my mother and father. Assimilating into this family was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It’s like my own little fairy tale.

Were you always confident you could overcome them?
No, I was not always confident I could overcome my struggles. When I was living on my own, I realized how quickly life changes around you. I always put 100% into everything; it seemed like I had to in order to survive. However, regardless of how much I tried, there was so much I could not control. I wasn’t sure if life would throw me the right bone. I was worried that my circumstances would not allow me to go to college, to get an education and a good job. I wasn’t confident in my ability to overcome life’s obstacles, well, until the hard ones were lifted off my shoulders. I have my parents to thank for that. Their love and support changed everything for me. I know that, now that I didn’t have to survive, I can be as successful as I want to be.

Have your life experiences helped in returning in any way?
It took me a while to really feel comfortable sharing my story, and I think this really hampered my ability to give back. Now, as I am getting older and coming to terms with what has happened to me, I am much more receptive to ideas of giving back. I’m now more able now to give advice to younger students than I have ever been before.

How did you find the University of Maine when you began your coursework? Did you spend much time on the Orono campus?
When I began school in Orono, I lived in Androscoggin hall. I enjoyed living on campus very much. Going to college was, for me, unchartered waters. I had no idea what to expect. It’s almost as though I experienced culture shock. Once I was settled in I enjoyed my classes and being around my friends without having to worry about food, bills, and jobs. I went home often to spend time with my mother and father. After so many years of feeling like I had no support and family, it was nice to be able to come home to a warm house with dinner on the table.

Why did you choose UMaine?
I was probably 10 years old when I first thought of coming to UMaine. At that time, I thought I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I remembered hearing about Cindy Blodgett, a guard from a small town in Maine who played for UMaine and made it to the WNBA. I thought that I wanted to be a Maine Black Bear, just like Cindy, and then I’d be able to go play for the WNBA. My circumstances had forced me to quit basketball. But, perhaps it was these childhood fantasies of playing ball for the Black Bears that first attracted me to the University in Orono. Ultimately, after looking at the programs, finances, and location, UMO just seemed to fit.

Do you have any favorite professors or classes, and what lessons did you take from the professor or class that resonates today?
The Honors sequence was by far the most rewarding of all my classes. In my sophomore year I took my honors classes from Prof. David Gross. The most important thing that Professor Gross and the Honors sequence has taught me is that life is beautiful.  Life is filled with lessons, hardships, heartaches, happiness and sadness. It is undeniably a voyage, an expedition that we find ourselves relentlessly questioning. Understanding this has really helped to my own struggles into perspective. Ultimately altered my outlook on life.

Were there any classes you took that almost did you in?
Calculus almost did me in! Mathematics simply aren’t one of my strong suits. I’ve always done well, but I certainly had to work harder for them than in other courses.

Most memorable moment at UMaine?
Not surprisingly, going to my first UMaine hockey game was my most memorable moment at the University. Getting herded up to the Maniac section, learning the stein song… it’s certainly a huge part of going to the University of Maine!

Favorite places or spots on campus?
I lived in Hancock my second year, and I often found myself taking a walk down to the river by the parking lot. I’d sit on the grass or on the rocks with notes and textbooks, soaking in the sun and the fresh air. That’s the way life should be!

What are your future plans?
Oh, the future! It’s hard to tell where it’ll take me. I intend on taking a couple of years off and going to law school. I’m seriously considering the Maine Law.

Image Description: Stephanie Littlehale

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The University of Maine
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