Watching her oldest son graduate college four years ago awakened a deep urge in Charlotte native Cheryl Gregory: It’s my turn.
After decades of work while raising two boys, Gregory, 49, not only returned to school but excelled. She’ll graduate Saturday from Queens University of Charlotte and then start graduate studies at Duke University.
College wasn’t an option while son Laran, now 25, studied business at Elon University. Gregory danced in the aisle as he crossed the stage on graduation day in 2013, her highest hopes for him answered.
“I knew I wanted to go back to school,” she said, “but I didn’t realize how much I wanted it until that day.”
Gregory grew up the next to last of 17 children. Her mother died when she was 3, leaving her father, older siblings and neighbors to help raise her.
She got pregnant at 16 and gave up the child for adoption. It was a hard decision for a 10th grader from a well-regarded, religious family, but one her faith tells her was best.
“My child had to have a better life than what I could provide right then,” she said. Gregory also believed she and her infant daughter, who was adopted by loving parents, would meet again. They did in 2013, starting what Gregory calls a developing relationship.
After graduation from Harding High School came some classes at Central Piedmont Community College and a diploma in secretarial science. Gregory then worked as an administrative assistant and for a couple of years ran a soul-food truck, specializing in “the best damn ribs anywhere.”
Gregory’s older son, Laran, worked for Honeywell before recently moving back to Charlotte. Younger son Jimmie attends East Mecklenburg High School and wants to play tennis professionally.
Gregory called CPCC immediately after her older son’s graduation, vowing to finish her bachelor’s degree before her younger son completes high school in 2018.
She enrolled at CPCC as a full-time student while also holding down a night job. She graduated in 2015 with a 3.9 grade point average and, by then juggling four part-time jobs, went on to Queens. She liked the school’s small class sizes and support for older students.
At Queens, Gregory served as president of the Hayworth Student Association for adult students, competed on the Ethics Bowl team and was certified a tutor. She spoke at a silent protest on campus during Charlotte’s racial unrest last summer.
Merit scholarships, grants and an on-campus job helped pay the bills. Gregory later won a Wings Scholarship from Women Executives for Community Service.
Gregory will graduate Queens as one of just three philosophy majors among nearly 600 graduates. She was first drawn to philosophy while still at CPCC, after her pastor commented that Gregory didn’t think like most people.
“I am an intellectual being who is capable of seeing the bigger picture, and from a young age,” Gregory said. “What is a self? What is a soul? How does that make them functional in society? I can see down through the rabbit hole and understand the whole thing.”
She credits Queens philosophy professor Norris Frederick with nurturing her talent.
Frederick, for his part, quickly recognized a student who was eager to absorb philosophy’s big questions and strengthen her critical thinking. Gregory brought positive energy to the classroom, he said, and an ability to work well with younger students.
“One of the things I admire is that she speaks very passionately and from her own perspective, but is really good at listening to the perspectives of other people,” Frederick said.
Gregory also boosted the ranks of women, a minority in philosophy, and the even smaller minority of African American women.
“She’s got a deep longing to understand, and a good ability to make connections,” Frederick said. “She’s got a really deep sense of mission in her life and what she wants to do.”
At Duke, Gregory will pursue a master’s degree in liberal studies, with a goal of earning a doctorate in philosophy. She’ll have to spend just two nights a week in Durham, and scholarships and grants will pay the bills.
Her goal is to open a school teaching expository writing, professional development and public speaking – tools for navigating society and careers – to high school students. She hopes to start a pilot program this summer in Charlotte.
“It’s not so much what I want to do with it, but what I will do,” she said of her Queens degree. “I want a deeper depth of that knowledge and to be a beacon for other young women.”
Queens this year will combine undergraduate, masters graduates and adult/post-traditional graduates into one ceremony instead of holding separate events. A total of 591 students will graduate May 6. David Marsh, head coach of the 2016 U.S. Women's Olympic Swim Team and high performance director of Team Elite at SwimMAC Carolina, will be the keynote speaker at the commencement.