AUGUSTA — Even for the University of Maine at Augusta, where it seems stories of nontraditional students overcoming daunting obstacles to find success can be found hiding under nearly every graduate’s black cap and gown, Tessa Pyles has a unique success story to tell.

For starters, the 35-year-old Augusta resident graduating with a 3.6 grade-point average as a liberal studies major with minors in American studies and women’s studies, and headed for graduate school, was raised in a cult.

“Yes, I was raised in a cult,” Pyles said. “It was originally known as the Children of God and later became known as The Family and I believe currently goes by The Family International. They are all over the world. My parents joined in 1970 or 1971, just a couple of years after the cult was founded. I was born at the end of 1976 and we left in 1991, when I was nearly 15. I attempted to rejoin a couple of times in my late teens, as it was the only life I knew; but after the second attempt, at the age of 19, I realized that it was not the life that I wanted. I left for the final time and never looked back.”

Pyles, the fourth of nine siblings, was home-schooled in Georgia but said her late mother, who did all the teaching in the family, seemed to tire of teaching as the children got older and more siblings kept coming. The last solid year of home-school Pyles had was the fifth grade. When she turned 18, she took the General Educational Development test and did well.

After her son was born in 2005, she began thinking about pursuing a college degree and enrolled at Valdosta State University in Georgia in 2006. After a year there, she moved to Maine and found work, but she said she wasn’t as happy as when she was in school. She began taking classes at UMA in the fall of 2008.

She’s done so well that the new graduate, who had never written an essay in her life before she entered college, plans to attend graduate school in the English Department at the University of Maine in Orono.

“I had no idea when I started this journey that graduate school was even an option,” she said, on the verge of tears. “My time at UMA has been the most rewarding and empowering time in my life. Through my course work, especially the work in my minors, American studies and women’s studies, I have found my passion and my voice. And while I acknowledge and give myself credit for the work I have done, I am indebted to some amazing professors who, when I first started here, saw something in me that I did not see in myself.”

Pyles was one of 647 students who graduated from UMA Saturday, as her 6-year-old son, Ethan, watched at the Augusta Civic Center. She said Ethan also loves learning, and when someone gives him money for his birthdays, he puts it in his piggy bank “for college.”

UMA President Allyson Hughes Handley, presiding over UMA’s 44th commencement, started by thanking faculty and staff members and the family and friends of graduates for their “constant and unwavering support” of the graduates. She concluded the ceremony almost a couple of hours later by quoting the rock band the Eagles, in encouraging graduates to be lifelong learners, and supporters of their alma matter.

“You should know UMA is like Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” a smiling Handley said. “As you now move forward to the next stage of your life, I hope you will remember, value and embrace and support the community you found here.”

WCSH 6 television news anchor Sharon Rose, the commencement speaker, urged graduates to push past their insecurities and perceived failures. She said failure just means something didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. Citing difficult moments early in her own career, struggling to get on the air, she said events that feel like horrible failures when they’re occurring probably happen for a reason, and they can make you a better person in the long run.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

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