LEWISTON – Six years ago Emily Wood was a single parent working at a laundry in Raymond.

Her job wasn’t paying enough to support her son, Brandon. She was thinking about going to school, but she worried that she wasn’t “college material.”

She was.

On Saturday, the 28-year-old Poland woman graduated from Lewiston-Auburn College with a 3.83 grade-point average, meaning she earned almost all A’s.

She was named Outstanding Senior among all graduates at University of Southern Maine campuses. She also won the single parent award at L-A College, from which 135 graduated with other USM students at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. With more than 1,700 graduates, it was USM’s largest graduating class.

The Class of 2006 was the 15th for the Lewiston campus, which opened in 1988.

In many ways Wood represents the L-A College student, said Assistant Dean Roger Philippon. Seventy-five percent of the students are female. Many are parents. The average age is 32.

Reflecting on her past four years, Wood said it’s been a long, hard road.

“When I started college I was scared. They tell you to fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) I remember thinking, What’s a FAFSA?'”

In 2001 she divorced, ending an abusive relationship. “I didn’t have much exposure to the outside world. I didn’t have much job experience. I was working odd jobs.”

Her self-esteem was low.

But one of her friends had graduated from college through the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Parents as Scholars program. That program offers support for parents – food stamps, child care and transportation – so they can get an education.

Wood enrolled in college, then applied and was accepted as a Parents as Scholars student.

Four years later, she says she’s a changed woman. And a big advocate of what college can do for a person.

“I went to college to make a better life for me and my son, to make more money. But what I really ended up getting was so much more,” Wood said. “My self-esteem is so much better. I realize I can achieve anything I set my mind to.”

Her son, a fourth-grader at Poland Community School, doesn’t talk about whether he’ll go to college, he talks about when. He attended a recent awards ceremony with his mother, at which one of the professors gave a speech praising Wood. “My son said, She’s talking about you!'”

The professor, Michelle Vazquez Jacobus, said she gets chills when thinking about Wood’s future.

“Just having seen how much she’s grown, I can imagine her in the Legislature, as a social worker or in a leadership position at a center for public policy research.” Wood majored in psychology and social and behavioral sciences.

For a work-study project, she created a liaison position for Parents as Scholars to make it easier for people to get into college. From her experience, Wood recognized that would-be students need support to understand how to make college possible.

After she created the program, Vazquez Jacobus asked her if she wanted the job.

Wood has the strength, passion and zeal to be an advocate for others who have struggled with challenges similar to hers, Vazquez Jacobus said.

Calling the college experience a personal growth process, Wood said Androscoggin County will be better off when many more have achieved degrees.

“I really believe a lot of social problems could be solved by higher education,” she said.