History Grad, Cancer Survivor Surprised by Special Diploma Delivery
When Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) caught Loretta Gray's attention on Twitter, she wanted to know more. Having begun her bachelor's degree more than two decades ago, she was ready to finish it. So, she applied and was enrolled in classes just a few days after that.
Nearly 10 months later, her husband, Cameron Gray, tweeted a photo of Loretta working on her degree with a message that would capture SNHU's attention:
This is my wife @LorettaGrayVA. While she was battling breast cancer, she got her real estate brokers license. As she was winning the battle, she enrolled at @snhu to get a degree online, which she is pictured finishing up. She kicks so much ass and I wanted to tell the world.
After learning Loretta was in the final term for her bachelor's degree in history, SNHU got to work on a special surprise – one that would require some help from Cameron.
Surprised by a Diploma Delivery
After Cameron returned from a business trip on Monday, Loretta thought they were heading to lunch. Little did she know, there was a surprise waiting for her in the courtyard near their home in Alexandria, Virginia. Loretta's diploma – along with a few friends and representatives from SNHU – was waiting for her.
Cameron knows how much his wife hates when people make a fuss over her. "This time, there's no avoiding it," he said. "She deserves this moment in the spotlight.”
SNHU Senior Vice President of External Affairs and Communication Libby May presented Loretta with her diploma.
"On behalf of Southern New Hampshire University, it is my honor and my pleasure to hand-deliver your well-deserved diploma: Bachelor of Arts in History," May said. "Congratulations from all of us at Southern New Hampshire University. We are so proud of you. We know you worked so hard to earn this."
Along with her framed diploma, SNHU brought Loretta her cap, gown and honors cord, which she put on for photos. Her dog, Vegas, also sported a graduation cap and SNHU bandana. Loretta said she was totally surprised by the celebration: “I’m never going to walk past this spot and not think of this."
Cheering from the Sidelines
Cameron has been applauding Loretta’s perseverance long before she received her diploma. He cheered her on throughout her program, proud of what she was accomplishing – beating cancer, getting her real estate broker's license and earning a degree.
"I never doubted that she was going to excel, but her grades are even more than I imagined," Gray said. "She kept straight As. She’s just a very inspirational (person) and she's just a cool wife."
Knowing his wife, Cameron said he best supported Loretta by staying out of her way. “She does big things like this pretty much on her own, and while I am ready to be there when she needs me … my role is just letting her do her thing with few impediments,” he said. “I have always respected and appreciated her fierce independence.”
It was important for Cameron to be there for his wife because her love of history runs deep. "Her whole life has been scholarship and books and classics and memorizing maps of Ancient Rome and social media of everything classics and us going through the museum at the Vatican, telling me everything the tour guide got wrong, and knowing the entire history of English monarchs and ancient battle weapons and on and on," he said.
Loretta's academic advisor, Erin Lockwood, was also there to help keep her on track. “Erin is great," Loretta said. "She was always there. She always popped in, every time I send an email to advising … she answered my questions so fast. She was always there to help."
Lockwood said the best part of her job is watching students complete their degrees – and she is especially excited for Loretta. “Academically, Loretta has demonstrated a tremendous amount of grit and determination to achieve her degree,” Lockwood said. “She has maintained a full-time workload while pursuing personal goals and focusing on her health. She has made her education a top priority which is reflected in her exceptional GPA.”
Crossing the Finish Line
During her two battles with cancer, Loretta recognized how important time is – and how easy it is to take it for granted and make excuses. “I’ve had cancer and cancer treatments for 25% of my adult life,” Loretta said. “Enough time has gone by. I don’t need any more missed time, any more lost brain cells.”
So, when she decided she was ready to finish her degree once and for all, she wasted no time. While an admission counselor was assisting her in the enrollment process, he told her she was all set to start the upcoming Monday. She could also transfer the credits she earned at previous experiences, putting her in her final year of college.
“I did not want to start further down, and I was so thankful that my path was only 12 months,” Loretta said. “That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. (I’ve) got that.” She managed to finish her history degree with a concentration in European history less than a year later.
“SNHU is one of the best ways to finish out your degree (or) start a new degree because the courses and the programs are so streamlined, and the process is fabulous," she said.
Balancing It All
Getting back to work on her degree during the 2020-21 school year made perfect sense for Loretta, too, who was still undergoing treatments for cancer last summer. While so much was happening in her life, including the effects of the global health crisis and political unrest, her home office on the outskirts of Washington D.C. became a re-energizing place she could go.
“(Going to school) was just a great chance to reinvigorate all these brain cells – get them thinking of something other than, you know, my problems,” she said. Instead, she could investigate the problems humans faced 2,000 years ago.
Meanwhile, she sold $8 million as a real estate broker and taught four classes to those planning to join the field – all since January 1, when she also maintained two SNHU courses per term. An average day in her life as a student began with a 9:30 am business meeting. She taught real estate classes from 11-2:30 pm and did house showings, contracts and client meetings until 5 pm. Loretta focused on her bachelor’s degree in the evenings – when it made sense for her schedule.
Her greatest obstacle through it all was balancing school, work and life. To help guide her focus, she used a calendar to keep track of her schedule and took each task one at a time. Setting aside time to be unproductive was another essential time management strategy for Loretta – she typically used it to watch hockey or baseball games.
“All you have to do to finish up your degree is set aside the time you want for the things you want to do – and just do it,” she said. “Make a calendar. Create the time. The time is there – it’s definitely there.” Not only can planning out your week help you compartmentalize your priorities, she said, it can also help you uncover blocks of time to spend on what you want to accomplish.
Pushing Forward by Going Back in Time
Loretta graduated in the top 10 of her high school class before heading directly into college in the late 90s. “(My parents) just didn’t make enough, so I went for a year, and then I had to pay out of pocket for the whole year – minus scholarships,” she said. “But it’s still soul-crushing when you’re, you know, 18 (or) 19, and you have no skills, no nothing.”
Despite having reached a great point in her career, Loretta felt having an unfinished degree represented her previous hardships. Over the last couple of decades, she earned 90 credits toward her bachelor’s degree at community colleges and other universities, and then finally completing it at SNHU was “the biggest relief of the decade,” she said.
“I’m just glad it’s finished,” Loretta said. “… It’s so much of a freeing moment, and I’ve been working on it for so long.”
Her passion for history started in high school – ever since she read Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in the 10th grade and noticed some inconsistencies with historical sources she’d previously read.
Since then, she’s united her interest in history and literature by accumulating an estimated 1,500 feet in history books. She used to tell her mom and others in her life that she’d need all of these books one day when the library would not be open. To her surprise, her collection prepared her for the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed the doors of many libraries. "I couldn’t believe that it had actually come true,” Loretta said.
'In a Sense, Those People Have Never Died'
In the uncertainty of having a “cancer gene,” which increases her likelihood of developing cancer, she takes solace in her books and studying history. "It’s overwhelming to think about, you know, finite existence,” Loretta said. “And it’s a comfort to read history because, in a sense, those people have never died. They’re still there; we still talk about them."
Loretta may be done with her bachelor’s degree, but she’s not done with school. The day after she finished her bachelor’s degree, she was enrolled in a class to brush up on her Latin and is scheduled to take Greek later in September. After that? She plans to begin her master’s degree with a focus on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds – the pre-Homeric era, if possible.
“My education has been important because I’ve been working on it since 1997 and ... the completion of it is as important as the path to get there," Loretta said.
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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