University College at Rockland — URock as it is known locally — sits on the fourth floor of the city’s Breakwater building.

Part of the University of Maine System, URock is an outreach center in Maine’s Midcoast where students can take courses and earn a degree from one of the seven system campuses. But many of the students who have been touched by the place know that it is much more than that. It serves as a source of new beginnings for people whose lives and aspirations have stalled. Paula Stillings is one of these.

In 2010, Stillings was a stay-at-home mom with three children. Stillings sought assistance for her family through TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and from the ASPIRE program. The aim of these programs is to help people in-need get training and find employment that will bring them to financial self-sufficiency. Stillings was grateful for the opportunity.

TANF’s employment requirement was temporarily waived in 2010 because job openings in Maine had hit bottom, a fact that allowed Stillings to begin college immediately. But what would she study? Having worked in the field of long-term care, she was bothered by the fact that the nursing home elderly lacked advocates, particularly those whose lives were devastated by Alzheimer’s disease.

“I knew I wanted to make the experience more dignified for them,” she said.

Stillings spoke to an ASPIRE worker in her office on the first floor of the Breakwater building in Rockland about her inclinations. Before she knew it, she was escorted upstairs to URock where she met then Student Services Coordinator Beverly Bayer, who spoke with her about enrolling in a program.

“I went home and cried,” Stillings said. “I really could not believe that it was possible to go to college.”

Stillings doubted she could succeed in college partly mostly because she did not own a computer and had never learned to use one. Her oldest daughter tried to coach her.

“She told me, ‘just click on that,’ but I didn’t even know what click meant.”

Her first hurdle was the computerized placement test. That accomplished, she attended her first class, where she “was scared to death.” She remembers a college writing class with instructor Garrett Vail where she could barely speak above a whisper. He told her to use her “big girl voice,” and she countered, saying that she would use her “mom voice” instead. The course was a turning point for Stillings, who found Vail’s gentle guidance a balm for her rock-bottom self-esteem.

“He helped me to heal that part that was scared of men. Everything he said was encouraging and respectful.”

James Cook was another professor who saw in Stillings the gifts of intellectual curiosity, rigor and passion for justice that she couldn’t yet see in herself.

“Ms. Stillings casts an expert critical eye on every subject matter before her, unwilling to simply accept as a matter of faith the common wisdom of the day and unwilling to accept the injustice she sees around her,” said Cook. “By equal measures indignant, insightful and open-minded, Paula Stillings elevates every discussion she enters with thorough consideration, big-picture thinking and a strong reference to available data.”

The staff at URock became her cheering committee. A chorus of “of course you can do that!” met her whenever her confidence faltered.

“I felt like they wanted you to succeed, no matter what your issue was,” said Stillings. “Everyone was so willing to help. They would get you a tutor if you needed one, help you choose the right courses, or learn to use the library. I’m now computer literate. My older daughter tells me that I know more than she does.”

In the spring 2013 semester, Stillings enrolled in an independent study with attorney Rebekah Smith of Union. Her project examined the suitability of integrating restorative justice techniques in cases involving domestic violence. Restorative justice focuses on identifying and healing the harm to the victim, holding offenders accountable and involving all people affected by the crime. Stillings researched the way domestic violence cases are currently handled and considered whether restorative justice practices could offer more options and benefits to victims. She found that other countries have been using this approach with good results.

“The system is aware that they are arresting the same people over and over again. These people keep re-offending. It isn’t working.”

Stillings sees plenty of potential to reform the way these cases are handled, but acknowledges there are dangers in moving toward this approach without proper preparation and training. Safeguards must be required to protect the victims, and counselors would need to be thoroughly educated in the practice. The rewards, however, could be substantial and might have cross- generational effects.

Impressed with Stillings’ work, Attorney Smith suggested that she send the paper to the Maine Department of Corrections, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and to other organizations. Both Smith and Stillings hope the paper will promote discussion and generate new ideas in the handling of Maine’s domestic violence cases.

Stillings graduated from the University of Maine at Augusta with a bachelor of the arts degree in liberals studies and a minor in advocacy. She has made everyone proud.

“As she graduates with a bachelor's degree and moves on to a professional career, Paula will bring credit upon the academic community of University College and the University of Maine at Augusta,” Cook said.

“Paula has tremendous intellectual capacity,” said Deb Meehan, director of University College at Rockland. “She started with relatively low confidence; in fact, I think she cried during her first appointment with me as she worried about her abilities. She graduates with wide respect from faculty, an independent study project that will make a significant contribution in the field of criminal justice and domestic violence and a very bright future. I will miss her. “

As for Stillings, she is not sure what her next steps will be. She may apply to graduate school or find work as an advocate for the elderly or for victims of domestic violence. While she waits for that clearer direction to emerge, there is one thing she’s sure of.

“I want to make someone’s life a little better,” she said.