A 40-year dream comes true
On Saturday, Lem Patterson will walk on stage at North Carolina A&T University, shake a hand or two and grab the diploma for his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.
It has been 40 years since he first began his journey to complete a college education, one that has twisted and turned, stalled and sputtered, but will ultimately finish in success.
Patterson, 57, graduated from Lenoir High School in 1973. He was president of his senior class, lettered in baseball and tennis, and was a member of the honor society.
He planned to enroll at UNC Chapel Hill, something his high school guidance counselor advised him against.
“My guidance counselor in high school said, ‘Don’t do it. Here you’re a big fish in a little pond. There, you’ll be a little fish in a big pond,’” Patterson said.
In August 1973, he enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill, but soon dropped out and enrolled at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.
Patterson slacked on his studies and fell in with the wrong crowd, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and as his grades slipped, he realized he was wasting his parents’ money and time. He decided to leave school, assuming he had enough under his belt to land a decent job.
Back in Lenoir, he began work at a furniture factory, and one day when a “bigot laughed about my college education and me doing the same job he was doing and making less money,” Patterson clocked out and never went back.
Then, he worked briefly for the United Parcel Service but within a month moved on to Southern Bell, which would later become AT&T, where he worked for 30 years.
Through all that time, the desire to finish his degree never left Patterson, and when he would run into classmates who had finished their degrees, it would fan those flames.
In 2008, he retired and moved back to Lenoir to be near his parents, then 78 and 80. After learning about a readmission program at A&T, he applied and was accepted in January 2012.
He chose to live on campus, a necessity he felt to ensure he made it to his classes. He was assigned to live in a residence hall called Aggie Terrace, specifically for seniors, graduate students and non-traditional students like Patterson.
It was hard adjusting and fitting in – so many things were different from his days as a student in the ‘70s. Grass and trees had been overtaken by development, cellphones and texting dominated students’ time, even during class, and group projects, which were rare in the ‘70s, abounded.
But he adjusted and began to enjoy it, and as graduation approached he yearned for just a few more weeks of school.
Since re-enrolling in 2012 he has solid record of A’s except for a single B.
He tells people his major is sociology for simplicity, though technically it is liberal studies with a concentration on cultural change and social development, complementing what his focus was his first time around: political science.
Patterson hopes to take his degree and go back to work helping young people.
“I think my story will help them,” he said.
For Patterson, finishing this journey knocks one item off his bucket list.
“I’m just hoping I can walk across the stage with a serious face without throwing my arms up and finding my folks,” he said.