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‘I Dreamed of Being a Surgeon’: 75-Year-Old Grandmother Graduates from Shaw University After Leaving the School In 1968 to Start Her Family

After being admitted into a Historically Black College and University in 1965, and leaving during her junior year, 75-year-old Rebecca Inge returned to the institution to complete her studies. Culminating a 57-year journey, the grandmother was able to walk across the commencement stage in her cap and gown to receive her bachelor’s degree from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

I Dreamed of Being a Surgeon': 75-Year-Old Grandmother Graduates from Shaw University After Leaving the School In 1968 to Start Her Family
Rebecca Inge’s school ID from 1965 (WRAL Video Screengrab)

According to WRAL, Inge left her hometown of Sanford, Florida, in 1965, to pursue her college degree in Raleigh, working in the cafeteria to pay her way through school. Inge had hopes to work in the medical field. “I always dreamed of going to med school because I was sick a lot as a child,” she said. “I dreamed of being a surgeon.”

Nearly six decades later, on Sunday, May 8, Inge would graduate. The irony of her graduation from the private Baptist HBCU is that it landed on Mother’s Day.

In 1968, after getting married and giving birth to her daughter Marisa Ratliff Dunston, Inge, now a widow, put her dreams on hold.

While talking about her mother’s sacrifice, Dunston said “She put her life on hold so that I could finish my 21 years, all of my education, so that I could be successful today.”

During the break in her education, Inge worked for NASA during the first space shuttle mission and later at Disney World as a safety instructor.

After the death of her husband in 2015, Inge decided to go back to school, after also having traveled some with her daughter during her stint in the U.S. military, through which she was stationed in places such as Germany and Japan.

Inge says when she went to the school to re-enroll, members of the school’s administration were shocked. She said, “The lady looked at me and she said, ‘I don’t know if we got your records and I said, ‘Then find them!’ ”

Inge admits school in the 21st century was different than when she originally attended. In the 1960s, there were no emails and the most complicated technology the average person had was television and rotary telephones. Still, she pushed through, saying, “You gotta live ’til you die, so why not be happy doing something that makes you happy and get involved.”

Sohndra Stone Snead, a Shaw grad from the class of 1971, was a student at the school when Inge was there. While the two never met, she is proud of her fellow sister alum.

She said in an interview with Atlanta Black Star, “I think that is wonderful and exceptional Ms. Inge has returned to school for her degree. Anyone to have followed up after being gone for so long is exceptionally bold, brave and should be commended for having the initiative to pursue her dream of a bachelor’s degree. It says a lot about her, and it says a lot about the institution,” Snead continued.

She added that when she was a freshman in 1967, she had a classmate named Elise Hawkins who signed up as a student when she was 62 years old. 

Inge joins Grammy Award-winning singer Shirley Caesar in earning a degree from Shaw.

After originally enrolling in North Carolina College in 1956, and leaving to become a traveling gospel singer in 1958, Caesar returned to Shaw University to earn a bachelor of science degree in Business Administration in 1984.

Coincidentally, the three women are members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Caesar is an honorary member, while both Snead and Inge pledged the sorority’s Alpha Rho Chapter. Inge wore the shield on her stole during graduation.

Inge has a lot of new paraphernalia, both of the school and sorority, but her most prized school item is her first identification card. After all of these years, she still has her original student ID from the 60s, endearing it as a token of her decades’-long journey. 

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