This is the first of a three-part series called “The road to graduation” which follows the emotions, expectations, and decisions of three graduating seniors. Staff Writer John McCarthy has followed these seniors since February.

For most of her adult life Mary Gaul was obsessed with leaving Maine. College became a contradiction, representing both the surest path out of the state, and an obstacle to her escape. She had no way of knowing that events in the months leading to graduation would change everything.

Gaul was an excellent student at Morse High School in Bath. She got all As and Bs and was accepted to Skidmore College. But friends who expected to see Gaul off to New York were in for a surprise.

“A lot of my friends were really smart and were going to Ivy League schools,” said Gaul. “When I told them I was going to USM they would look at me like I was dumb.”

Gaul, who had turned down Skidmore because of cost, shared her friend’s doubts about USM.

“I wasn’t very happy,” said Gaul. “I thought USM was like a fallback school. I was depressed because all my friends were going out of state. My plan was to transfer after a year or so.”

Gaul’s mood did not improve as she began classes at USM, according to her mother Barbara Gaul.

“Mary was very disappointed to be at USM,” said Gaul. “It didn’t seem like a real college experience to her.”

During her freshmen year Gaul found the nontraditional atmosphere at USM hard to get used to.

“It was really strange to have 50-year-olds in my classes,” said Gaul.

Gaul also found that at USM meeting people is not easy because of the school’s large commuter population.

“I mostly hung out with my high school friends,” said Gaul.

Eventually Gaul’s academic life began to suffer.

“I hated coming to classes where I knew nobody,” said Gaul. “I did my work, but I wasn’t too excited about it,” said Gaul.

After her sophomore year Gaul reconsidered her plan to transfer out of USM.

“I figured I was saving a lot of money, and there were benefits to being close to home,” said Gaul. “It was kind of like I couldn’t bother with the hassle of transferring.”

Once she had decided to stay at USM, Gaul declared a major in psychology, a subject that had always interested her and complemented her desire to help special needs children.

Towards the second half of her junior year Gaul began adjusting to life at USM and in her South Portland neighborhood.

“Now I feel like I’m at home here,” said Gaul.

Despite feeling more comfortable at USM, Gaul still had no idea where she would go or what she would do when school ended. Throughout her senior year she remained fixated on leaving Maine as soon as possible, but the lack of any means to accomplish her goal left her frightened and confused.

As winter came to an end, and graduation loomed ever larger Gaul was still confused. That’s when close family friend and Maine Senate Republican Leader Mary Small decided to throw her a lifeline.

Small put Gaul in touch with the Merrymeeting Center for Child Development, a clinic for autistic children in Gaul’s hometown of Bath. Keeping students like Gaul in Maine has long been Small’s goal.

“From a legislative point of view, we are trying very hard to keep graduates in the state,” said Small. “The state needs young people who are well-educated.”

Small, whose daughter is currently attending an out-of-state college, admitted a strong personal desire to see more young people make a home in Maine after college.

“Maine is the best place to raise a family. It’s a very caring community,” said Small. “I don’t think you will find many places as beautiful as Maine.”

Small called work at the Merrymeeting Center a “great opportunity” for Gaul.

“It’ll give her a real chance to see what working with autistic children is like,” said Small. “I think the children will improve because Mary’s positive outlook is kind of contagious.”

But the new opportunity did not end Gaul’s indecision.

“I don’t know what to do at all. I’m so stressed out about it,” said Gaul shortly after getting the news in March. “I want to get out of Maine at least for a little.”

Gaul was less than enthusiastic about the possibility of working at the Merrymeeting Center for Child Development.

“It’s an offer, but it’s kind of not doing anything with myself,” said Gaul. “I know I would feel like I hadn’t done anything yet `cause I hadn’t gotten out of Bath. I’d feel like a townie.”

Gaul had finally learned to enjoy life in Portland, but the search for work threatened to disrupt her life just as the move to USM had years earlier.

“I really love Portland, said Gaul. “I’ve been having lots of fun, but I don’t have a job here, and if I’m going to look really hard for a job I’m going to look somewhere else.”

Gaul changed her mind about leaving Maine suddenly after a spring vacation trip at the end of March, according to her mother Barbara Gaul.

“She went to Chicago to visit her sister,” said Gaul. “I think it made her realize there are advantages to staying in Maine. I think she realized she is a Maine girl.”

Barbara Gaul expressed pleasure over her daughter’s desire to stay in Maine. She said that the decision had been her daughter’s and that she had only influenced it insofar as she “made it okay to make that decision.” She also felt sure that her daughter would miss her horse, Captain, if she ever left Maine.

Gaul found that life in other parts of the country is not as pleasant as she imagined it to be.

“Every street corner has a shop for the same thing,” said Gaul. “I don’t need 20 stores for the same thing. I don’t like the big city. I realized that Maine is a very pretty place, and I’m happy to be here.”

Gaul now plans to ultimately make Portland her home.

“It’s a city, but it’s the perfect size city,” said Gaul.

Gaul intends to pursue a position at the Merrymeeting Center for Child Development and then to search for a job in Portland. She expressed satisfaction with her outlook but did not know how long it will last.

“I think I’m pretty wishy-washy,” said Gaul.

Staff Writer John McCarthy can be contracted at: [email protected]

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