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