At age 71, Rosa Griffin fulfills goal of becoming a college graduate



When Rosa Griffin puts on her cap and gown a transformation takes place. She beams with pure joy and a sense of pride washes over her. You can see it in her eyes, in her smile, in the way she lifts her head just a little bit higher when she places her graduation cap on her head. To witness it is enough to give you goosebumps.

Griffin has been smiling quite a lot lately. She has much to be happy about. At age 71, this grandmother of 15 grandchildren will be graduating from Guilford Technical Community College in just a few days. She is the first in her family to obtain a college degree.

"This was one of my goals in my life that I have achieved," she says with tears in her eyes. "It's an awesome feeling. I didn't stop when things were hard. I kept going. And that's the most exciting thing for me that I didn't give up on my dreams. It's never too late."

Griffin grew up in Pitt County, the daughter of a sharecropper and the second oldest of eight siblings. They didn't have much and lived off the land that they sowed. Her mother made their own clothes and always made sure there was food on the table.

"It was very tough times," says Griffin of Greensboro. "But when I look at it now, it was all good. I thank God to this day for my experience with my mother and my father and being a share cropper's daughter on a farm because it taught me how to be strong, it taught me how to be a woman, it taught me how to survive when you have little or nothing. My mother and father didn't go to school. But that didn't stop me from wanting to be something."

As a young girl, Griffin recalls looking at pictures of famous singers and actors such as Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt and wanting to be like them.

"That was inspiration to me. I had no one else to look up to," Griffin said. "But I had a dream. … I always wanted to go to college."

Griffin chased that dream and received a scholarship to attend Shaw University. But after one semester, she dropped out and moved to New York City to join her friends who kept telling her how exciting life was there. The decision put Griffin on a different course after that. She fell in love and got pregnant with her first daughter at age 20. The relationship ended, but Griffin kept an open heart, hoping she'd find true love. And she thought she found it a second time, when she gave birth to a son, but her relationship with the baby's father dissolved. Griffin had a lot to give but that love was not reciprocated.

"I wanted to love everybody, and I wanted everybody to love me, but they didn't do that, and I got hurt and beat down," she says. "When you're coming up with eight siblings not having what others have, I wanted to share whatever I had with others, and I've done that all my life. That's the way I am."

Then, on a blind date, she met her current husband of 37 years. They dated for three months before they got married, had a son and eventually settled in Greensboro. And although life took her in a different direction, she never lost sight of her dream to go to college. But it would take another life-changing experience for that dream to come to fruition.

As Griffin was approaching retirement, she lost her job at Moses Cone Hospital, where she started out working as a ward clerk and later advanced to monitor technician in the emergency room. Losing her job after 15 years sent Griffin into a depression and crushed her self-confidence. She was unemployed and scared.

"It was a very dark place for me. I said, 'My god, how am I going to make this work? Everywhere I went I couldn't get a job, so I gave up."


It took a few more years before Griffin could muster the strength and motivation to pull herself out of her sadness and change her life. At the suggestion of a close friend, Phyllis, she enrolled as a general studies major at GTCC in 2007, and she never looked back.

"I never stopped looking for a way to better myself," Griffin said.

Along the way, she had to overcome a lot of obstacles. She had to conquer her fear that if she spoke in class, her peers would laugh at her. She had to overcome her most difficult subject, math, and retake the same biology class twice. She had to learn how to write a six-to-eight-page paper. But she stayed determined and progressed at her own pace to achieve her dream.

"I didn't know how to write a paper to save my life," she says laughing. "For some reason, somehow, certain people helped me stay strong. God put certain people in my path to walk me through the dark points."

It took others believing in Griffin in order for her to start believing in herself. She credits her GTCC instructors in part for that. Each one, she says, took the time to walk her through difficult concepts and advise her along the way.

"Not one turned me down. Not one said you're too old; you can't get this. They all embraced me," she said. "I didn't know people looked at me that way and saw a beauty, a light in me, because I've been in the dark. I never saw it. That gave me hope. It inspired me. It showed me where one person says, 'No,' another says, 'You can do this.' And I got through it."

After she graduates from GTCC on May 8, she wants to continue her education at Guilford College and pursue a bachelor's degree. Nothing can hold her back. That dream that seemed years away is now within grasp.

"When I get in that line to take my seat with my cap and gown on, I want to stand up and shout 'Hallelujah! I made it,'" Griffin says. "I won't let my age determine my future. I can do anything now. I'm on my way."


- Photos and story by Carla Kucinski/GTCC/May 2, 2014