Epilala Tauwala dropped out of Deering High School in Portland when she was 16 years old, finally giving up after struggling for years with crippling anxiety from the pressure she felt to perform academically.

Panic attacks, complete with nausea, racing thoughts and disorientation, often left her crumpled in a hallway corner. She was a sophomore, and she just couldn’t see a place for herself on the path laid out for her.

“I found it very depressing,” said Tauwala, who now lives in Westbrook. “I kinda felt like high school was a factory that was pumping out kids that all looked and acted the same to go to work.”

Tauwala recalled the depths of her depression and shame when she was a featured speaker at her graduation ceremony in May from South Portland Adult Education.

“I felt fearful and guilty,” Tauwala said. “My dad grew up on a remote Pacific island, and studied his way to the top of his class, and eventually across the ocean. My mom was a teacher with a master’s degree. But their daughter had dropped out of high school.”

Counseling and medication helped. Then she got a job as a cashier at the Riverside Hannaford supermarket.

“At the time I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself,” Tauwala said. “(Getting a job) reminded me that I could be productive and gave me incentive to get up every day. I felt like I had a purpose.”

The major shift came last fall, after a friend received his high school equivalency credential through South Portland Adult Ed. He encouraged her to check out the program. She reluctantly agreed to meet with its director, David Brenner. Rather than high expectations, Brenner had faith in her ability to succeed.

“He really believes in you,” Tauwala said. “He had no doubt.”

She plowed through the classes and completed all the tests in January. Now 20, she’s planning to travel to Papua New Guinea for five weeks in October to visit the small southwestern Pacific nation where she and her father were born. Her parents moved to Maine, where her mother grew up, when she was 10 months old.

Named for her seventh great-grandmother, Tauwala wants to meet her relatives, study her genealogy and experience the indigenous Pacific lifestyle. And she wants to help her clan protect its lands from unscrupulous corporate interests.

After that, she wants to go to college, something she’s been saving for since she was 17. Because there’s no expiration date for improving your life, she said.

“I want to learn things,” Tauwala said. “I have a passion to learn so I can understand the world.”

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