ORONO, Maine — At age 17, Stephanie Littlehale of Rockport was sleeping in her car in a Walmart parking lot because she didn’t know where else to go.
She had moved out on her own and started the process of emancipating herself from her parents after failed attempts to make her home life work.
But that was more than four years ago. On Saturday, the 21-year-old first-generation college student will graduate from the University of Maine in Orono with a degree in international affairs and minor in legal studies. She expects her grade point average to fall between 3.84 and 3.86, she said Thursday during an interview at the university.
“Classes have always come really easily to me,” Littlehale said. “[School] is my comfortable environment. It’s always been my go-to thing my whole life.”
Littlehale said school has been her refuge from a family life that was perpetually difficult.
At age 5 or 6, Littlehale and three of her five siblings were removed from her biological mother’s care in Lewiston by the state and placed with her grandmother.
Littlehale said that at age 14 she decided to give living with her mother another shot, but after a couple of years she decided the environment wasn’t healthy for her. She started the emancipation process and moved out.
In spite of all the difficulties Littlehale faced living with her biological mother during her first years of high school and spending part of her senior year without any home at all, she graduated as valedictorian from Georges Valley High School in Thomaston. She also worked three jobs during that time.
Littlehale said she is no longer in contact with her biological family.
“Everybody’s dealt a hand,” Littlehale said, without going into much detail about her past with her mother. “I’m not angry with her about anything that happened.”
After leaving home, Littlehale was without a place to stay and slept in her car for a time before finding a place to live on her own. Partway through her senior year, one of her former teachers — a person she had confided in during difficult times — stepped in to help.
After learning that Littlehale didn’t have anywhere to go, that teacher, Lorraine Knight, and her husband, Christopher, took Littlehale into their Rockport home. Littlehale is still living with the couple in her final year of college.
When Littlehale refers to her parents, or mom and dad, she’s talking about the Knights.
“They deserve it. They’ve done so much for me,” Littlehale said. “They literally dropped their lives to help me.”
The Knights, along with their parents, who have become like Littlehale’s grandparents, will be in the audience Saturday to watch her commencement.
Getting through those childhood and high school years “was a mixture of luck and my own drive, I guess,” Littlehale said. “I jumped into survival mode and just did what I had to do and everything just fell in line in the perfect place for me.”
Littlehale studied international affairs at UMaine, a field she said she was drawn to because of “that whole idea of getting out,” she said.
She earned a scholarship that allowed her to study in 2010 at the American University in Bulgaria, where she was able to take advantage of exchange rates to save up some money and travel to other parts of Europe. The flight to Bulgaria was the first time she had ever stepped on an airplane.
“It was the best time of my life,” she said.
After her time at UMaine wraps up this weekend, Littlehale said she will take a little time off to work and save up money. She said she hopes to attend the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.
Littlehale said her upbringing only helped reinforce her drive to succeed in school and improve her situation.
“I was dealt a hand that a lot of people at my age couldn’t handle,” Littlehale said of her high school years. “That senior year was definitely rough for me. I had to learn a lot about myself and about life.”