Graduate Susan Gray: Thanks to NAU, 71-year-old retiree finally checks ‘graduate from college’ off bucket list

Gray with cat

When Susan Gray was told by one of her counselors that college wasn’t for her, she did what any broken-spirited 19-year-old would do: She quit.

Maybe she wasn’t cut out for higher education, she thought.

Gray throughout the yearsBut Gray wasn’t about to let that stop her from living a successful life. She found a job she loved, and it turned into a lifelong career. After working more than 38 years, she retired as senior vice president of employee relations.

For most, retirement is the end goal, after which comes family time, traveling and some well-deserved lounging. But Gray wasn’t ready to hang up her briefcase just yet—she felt as though she had some unfinished business.

While vacationing in Hawaii, trying to enjoy her newfound freedom, Gray saw an ad for Northern Arizona University’s online education program, Personalized Learning. It piqued her interest, so she did some research. What she found was a program tailor-made for her that offered one-on-one mentoring, allowed students to work at their own speed, included multimedia presentations and the ability to communicate with classmates online and was competency-based. Gray was hooked. This was the check she needed to complete her bucket list. And so, she enrolled, ready to put the past behind her, though not before memories of her previous failed attempt resurfaced.

“Despite doing well on my entrance exams, I found out my high school transcripts did not meet NAU’s admission department standards,” she said. “But thanks to wonderful family members and colleagues who wrote letters, for which I am eternally grateful, NAU admitted me.”

After a more than 50-year academic hiatus, Susan Gray was officially a college student—and this time, it stuck.

“Getting an education is important to me because, although I loved my career, it had a very narrow, tunnel-like focus. Upon retiring, I very much wanted to broaden my scope of knowledge. My education also was an unfinished and important personal goal. NAU’s liberal arts program not only afforded me the opportunity to realize my dream without having to relocate, but was financially affordable, an important criterion when living on a semi-fixed income.”

Thanks to the mentorship of professor Jayme Davis, and the reference and writing guide Gray collaged of feedback she received on papers and tests, she was able to succeed.

“Susan Gray is the most inspiring student with whom I have had the opportunity to work in my 12 years of teaching,” Davis said. “She is one of the most passionate advocates for NAU that I’ve ever encountered and a role model for students in general, particularly older students, but especially for all of those students who somewhere along their educational journey encountered someone, somewhere who told them that they didn’t have what it takes to succeed academically or that they weren’t intelligent enough to earn a college degree. It took a great deal of courage and perseverance for her to apply to NAU, and now, she is one of the most talented and dedicated students we have had in our program.”

Gray, who receives her diploma this week, is still holding on tight to that briefcase. In addition to spending more time with her family, she plans to continue her volunteer work after graduation.

While in pursuit of a degree, she balanced her coursework with serving on boards of directors and as president of local charities, helping an ailing friend, facilitating pet adoptions and being a supportive mother to her two sons. She also volunteered as student representative for NAU’s Academic Hearing Board, where she ardently advocated for academic integrity.

“NAU has helped me fulfill a lifelong goal, broaden my perspectives, taught me to think critically and prepared me for whatever future challenges present themselves,” Gray said. “I have a great life and I couldn’t be happier with my NAU experiences and accomplishments.”

On Dec. 13, at the age of 71, Gray will finally get to check “graduate from college” off her bucket list.

Northern Arizona University LogoCarly Banks | NAU Communications
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