ELLSWORTH — Leeanna Conners is the first to admit that she wasn’t a star student in high school.
“I kind of started life a little backwards,” said the Ellsworth resident, who graduated from Ellsworth High School in 2005.
Conners struggled with biology in particular (“I took it twice”) and graduated near the bottom of her class. By 21, she was married, a mother of two. So Conners shakes her head in mild disbelief when describing her life as of Saturday: graduating from college with a 3.7 grade point average and a job as a long-term science substitute teacher at Hancock Grammar School.
“I never thought I’d be here,” she said.
Conners is the first in her family to graduate from college. She took a swing at a business management degree after high school, but left after two weeks. Her parents were hopeful she would get a degree, but she felt it just wasn’t for her.
“Oh my gosh. My poor parents,” she said.
She got a job waiting tables at 2 Cats Restaurant in Bar Harbor. Conners loved the work — the fast pace, chatting with customers — and the owners, with whom she became close.
But it was seasonal, and while the income was solid, it wasn’t enough to afford her children the life she imagined.
“I wanted the kids to have a little bit more of a cushion,” Conners said.
Then, in 2014, she heard an ad on the radio for the programs at the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) campus in Ellsworth, and Conners thought “maybe I can do this.”
The thought of smaller classes in her hometown appealed to her. She didn’t relish the idea of driving to Augusta or Bangor for school.
“Bigger classrooms make me nervous,” Conners said.
She enrolled and made herself two promises: no summer classes and no semesters off.
“I knew if I took a semester off I would never go back, and summers were for my kids,” said Conners, whose boys are now 11 and 13.
But life had a lot of curveballs to throw at Conners before she could get a degree.
There was her father’s cancer diagnosis and long recovery, her mother’s move to Florida, her stepfather’s cancer diagnosis, long days by his hospital bedside in Boston, and his eventual death. There was the car accident that killed a friend of her mother’s, with whom Conners was close. And the killing of the daughter of the owners of 2 Cats, Mikaela Conley, who Conners had known for years.
“It was hard. Really, really hard,” Conners said. “But I never stopped going to school.”
Her husband, who works building boats, shouldered most of the family’s financial burden while she was in school, Conners said, and took up making dinners and preparing lunches when she had to stay late to study.
“He read every essay I ever wrote,” she said. Although, she laughed, “The kids definitely ate a lot of ramen noodles and hot pockets.” Conners enjoyed prodding her younger sons to do their homework by teasing “Mom’s getting better grades than you.”
The teachers and staff at UMA were also vital to her success, said Conners, particularly Center Director Ann Delaney.
“She pushed me,” Conners said. “They told me ‘You can do this. Don’t stop.’”
This week, graduation week, will be bittersweet, Conners said.
“It’s finally done,” she said. “It’s kind of sad. I’ve made friends I never expected to make.” But she’s looking forward to becoming a full-fledged teacher, being home with her family, and maybe even inspiring others to follow in her footsteps — if that’s what they want.
“I’m excited to share my experience,” Conners said. “The struggling kids, I kind of connect with them.”
Conners continued: “I’ve worked really hard. But you need to want to do it.”