KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) – The new executive director for student success, equity and inclusion at A&M Central Texas shares her passion for higher education while paying tribute to her mother who passed away over of 3 decades. When you see Stephanie Legree-Roberts behind the desk at Warrior Hall, it’s hard to believe she endured a childhood abused by her father, the loss of her mother, and uncertainty about her future.
Stephanie spent her early years in a home filled with horror and hopelessness and her father’s induced alcohol abuse forced them into a life of struggle. She says he was a naturally scary person, constantly keeping them on edge, but his mother still did what she could to provide a somewhat normal childhood.
“She was doing the best she could. She was always looking for a way to put clothes on our backs and working three to four jobs at a time,” Roberts recalled.
She adds that she can now see, as an adult, why her mother felt like she couldn’t leave her father and even though it was obvious that her mother had lost faith in her own future, she always pushed his children to want more in life. .
Due to the circumstances of her home life, Stephanie began to fall behind in school comparing it to walking in quicksand. But by her senior year, she had fallen too far behind to catch up, so she decided to drop out. She still remembers the look on her mother’s face when she told her.
“I remember she was incredibly disappointed that I wasn’t going to graduate, and it just killed me to see that look on her face because she’s gone now, so she doesn’t know that I tried to fix it,” Roberts said with tears. in his eyes.
She says her mother was sassy and so full of life, but her father never really let her mother live. As Stephanie and her siblings got older, they started talking with their mother about plans to move on from their situation, but that day never really came. This is because Stephanie’s mother, Viola, disappeared the year after Stephanie dropped out of high school.
“As soon as she starts trying to do something for herself, has a job she loves and friends she feels good with, it’s over,” she recalls.
She spent months trying to investigate and get help to find Viola and was certain that her disappearance was in the hands of her father and that her family was involved. She remembers her father telling the police that Stephanie had something to do with it, which led the police to open an investigation into her. It also proved to her that she was blaming the right people. However, during this time of mourning, she says she also found her chance to grow.
“Suddenly my motivation kicked in and I was working two or three jobs and doing everything I could to stay out of trouble,” Stephanie explains.
While trying to find herself, she continued to search for answers about what had happened to her mother, but when she began to dig deeper into Viola’s disappearance, her world was turned upside down.
“My grandma said ‘I’m taking you to work’ so she took me to the video store, dropped me off and said ‘I won’t pick you up, I’ll bring you stuff ‘, she said, “you can’t come back to my house,” Stephanie recalled.
It forced her to spend every penny she had earned since she started working to ensure she had a roof over her head. She asked her cousin to bring her all the money she had which was stored in a small box, and she used it to rent a room from another woman. She says that even though she felt like she was in quicksand, she still wanted to do more with her life.
Before her mom disappeared, she recommended Stephanie get her GED, so she did. While working for her GED, she began filling out college applications hoping it would give her confidence in her future. Along with her nominations, she included a heartfelt letter explaining her life and situation. Unfortunately, due to her training, she was generally rejected. However, she wasn’t giving up on her dream of being something other than a casino employee, which is the path most people in her hometown took when they found themselves in this situation. Her patience finally paid off as she finally got the answer she was looking for from Pace University in Pleasantville, New York.
“I received a letter from their admissions office, and I read what this lady says and she tells me that she really appreciated my letter and that they are delighted to hear about my interests and want to know more about me and she asked if I could call her,” says Stephanie.
She says the phone call was central to changing the course of her life and adds that of all the letters she received, it was the only one that offered a sense of hope for her future.
During that phone call, Stephanie learned that she would have to do a lot more than just get her GED and that she was going to have to find a way to get a high school diploma. So that’s what Stephanie did, for two years she went to work and went back to her little room and studied. She says the moment she found out she was accepted, she was shocked and really couldn’t believe all her hard work had finally paid off.
Her confidence had been restored, but her family was unconvinced. She was living with her mother’s brother in New York the summer before her first semester, to whom she had to prove that she had even been accepted. She says she understands it now because her mother’s family was not made up of people she knew well due to the distance her father imposed between them. It took many miles on foot, trains and buses to get her to her new beginning, but she was able to enter campus for her freshman year with newfound confidence.
After her mother disappeared and was forced to move in with her father’s mother, her grandmother, many of her belongings, she was forced to leave behind. And with the lack of financial security she had, she constantly felt overwhelmed by her peers. Stephanie brought everything she had to her name which was nothing more than a coat, shoes and her audio cassettes which she carried in her single pillow case.
“I was about to turn 21, and there are my three 18-year-old roommates. And the room was full of parents, and little siblings, and these big shopping bags full of blankets, comforters, lamps, and rugs,” Stephanie says, “And I remember just looking around. from the room all this awesome chaos and thinking that it was gonna suck,” Stephanie said as she choked up.
She remembered why she was there, but seeing her roommates with their families made her feel like she was missing an important part of this trip. But she did what she knew she had to do, she persevered until graduation day. In her four years at Pace, she had become a mentor, tutor, homecoming queen, and even senior class president.
“I was able to reinvent myself, I was able to find a way to experiment and find out what I always knew was available but I didn’t know how I was going to access it,” she explains.
She says she thanks her educators who never gave up on her and she is now able to pay it to her students.
“I always try to encourage them and remind them that these problems are only temporary if you persevere,” she says.
And now, she’s able to better understand students, no matter their journey, helping them find hope and confidence while honoring her mother every step of the way.
Fast forward 30 years almost to the day she disappeared and Viola got her name back. Stephanie says she and her siblings worked with NAMUS at the University of North Texas and Charlie’s Project to locate her and find out what happened. Viola had died of strangulation and was actually found in Harlem, New York, two hours from where they lived in New Jersey, the day after she disappeared. Viola spent three decades as Jane Doe because no one ever came forward to claim her, but now she has a name and a home again.
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