Ray: “I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me.” Photo by James Coreas.

Ray pushed her children to pursue their education. When she decided to follow suit, she said, she practiced what she preached. Her desire to return to college never went away, even after it had been more than 30 years since she stepped foot in a classroom.

“I felt I was always supposed to be educated,” she said. “I felt like I made some other decisions instead of finishing school, got married and started a family. But that voice was never silenced in me.”

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She started with one course at TCC. The following semester, she took two courses, and she continued adding classes along the way.

When she enrolled at a four-year college for the first time, she did so as a disabled student.

“That was scary because I didn’t breathe well, I didn’t move well, I couldn’t walk,” she said. “But I just decided to push myself, and I think it was the best thing I did.”

During the last spring semester at UNT, she was enrolled full-time, taking 15 semester hours (five classes).

Life on campus is tough for Ray. Not only is she roughly three decades older than most of her classmates, she also has to make special arrangements with her professors to accommodate her medical condition. She takes shuttles to and from classes and sets alarms to make sure she is always on time

“I never want anyone to feel sorry for me, but sometimes exceptions have to be made,” she said. “That’s always kind of a weird feeling, but I’m very resilient.”

Socially, her transition to campus life has come more easily, although she can’t turn off her inner mom when she sees her floormates doing something that could get them into trouble.

“If there’s something happening that bothers me, I generally wait until it’s over,” she said. “Then I [tell another student], ‘Come holler at me later, and let’s talk about that.’ ”

Over the course of the year, Ray and her two daughters were in daily contact. Initially, Free and Whitley had mixed reactions to sharing their campus with their mother.

“I was nervous,” Free said. “I was legal drinking age, but I still felt like I had to sneak around.”

Whitley said she initially wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of Mom on campus but eventually warmed to the idea.

“It was interesting to say the least,” Whitley said. “We talked about it for a while, and we were in different dorms at that time. But I gradually got over it.”

Ray said she made a concerted effort to not over-mother her daughters on campus.

“They needed space to grow up and make their own decisions,” she said. “I had to take a step back and let them stand on their own two feet. I don’t ask them where they’re going or who they are with. I just tell them to be safe.”

Ultimately, Ray plans to become a rehabilitation counselor. But first, she wants to complete her master’s degree at UNT.

Free graduated on May 16, and Ray said that moment was special for her, considering it’s the second time she’s been able to see her oldest daughter walk across the stage.

“It was amazing,” Ray said. “I didn’t even cry because I was so happy. I felt like that was something I wanted for her whole life. I wanted her to be independent and a woman of value and morals and to be productive. She’s so beautiful to me. I felt like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been working at for 23 years.’ ”

Ray may still be at UNT –– this time as a graduate student –– for Whitley’s graduation in 2018.

“I’m pretty sad,” Whitley said, “because I have had my whole family here for freshman year, and it was really fun, and now both of them could be leaving me.”

Free will be a part of the Teach for America program in Charlotte, N.C. She said she’s proud of the strides her mother has made since going to UNT, and she’s seen a difference.

“She said she didn’t know how much time was left,” Free said, “so she wanted to have a blast while she could.”