KINGSTON, R.I. – April 8, 2015 – It took Cheryl Robinson-Roberts nearly 40 years to get her college degree, but it was worth it. She can look in the mirror and say, “I did it. I’m finished.”
Well, sort of. The 57-year-old University of Rhode Island senior is thinking about getting her master’s degree, possibly in social work or theology. “I can almost see it. Once you start, you want more.”
She credits her academic success to the professors and staff at URI’s Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Continuing Education in Providence who never let her give up, despite her tumultuous family life. Her faith also sustained her.
In December, she earned her bachelor of interdisciplinary studies, with a major in human studies, and in May she’ll walk across the stage on the Kingston campus, proudly holding her diploma.
“It’s the end of a long journey,” she says. “And it hasn’t always been easy. Life comes at you.”
Raised in South Providence, Robinson-Roberts was the middle child of five, born to a father who worked as a custodian and pastor and a mother who styled hair. Her childhood was idyllic, with family gatherings on holidays and Sundays at the Church of God in Providence. “I was happy and loved.”
Her life changed when she got pregnant at 17. She stayed in school, and her mother took care of her infant son, Craig, so she could graduate on time, in 1975. The following year, she enrolled at URI as part of the talent development program, but left after two semesters to go back to Craig. She took classes on the Providence campus, but, again, left without finishing.
In 1982, she found a temporary job as a data entry clerk in Family Court in Providence, which led to the full-time job she holds today – deputy clerk in the court’s domestic relations department. Through it all, she never gave up her dream of a college degree, even though family problems seemed overwhelming at times.
At 30, she adopted an infant boy whose teenage mother was unable to care for him. After marrying Kevin Roberts in 1988, her family expanded to one stepson and two biological sons. She also cared for her sister’s five children at one point. Then, at the age of 50, child service workers asked if she would care for one of her grandchildren. Her response: “How soon can you bring her?”
“I had my 50th birthday party,” she says, “and I’m bringing an 8-month-old baby with me. That was amazing – and unexpected.”
There’s more. Her father died in 2012, her mother got sick and last year a family member went to prison, leaving her children behind. Again, Robinson-Roberts opened her home – and heart – to kids, this time two. “I took them in because they’re my family. It’s that simple.”
Miraculously, she still made time to pursue her degree. After earning her associate’s degree elsewhere, she returned to the Providence campus in 2011, taking two classes every semester, even during the summer, while holding down a full-time job at the courthouse and caring for children and ill parents.
“I just kept plugging away,” she says. “It was something I wanted to do for me. I had – and have – a good job, but I wanted my degree. A judge once told me, ‘You’re never too old to learn.’ That inspired me.”
URI’s Providence campus was the perfect place for her as an older, working mother, she says. Younger students embraced her, and faculty members were helpful and understanding with her family demands. Courses were challenging, from statistics to psychology to human development. She made the dean’s list twice.
“As her academic advisor, I was aware of the many barriers Cheryl faced in her personal life,” says Tammy Vargas Warner, coordinator of URI’s Urban Initiative. “Her determination was inspiring. Cheryl continued making steady progress each semester and we are so proud that she has finished. We know coming back is not easy and life doesn’t always cooperate but we help students find a realistic path to completion.”
Craig was only 2 when Robinson-Roberts started her long journey at college; he turned 40 last December. Today, she has nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. And she’ll celebrate her 27th wedding anniversary this summer.
In June, Robinson-Roberts will attend her 40th class reunion at Central High School in Providence. She can’t wait. She’d like to bring her URI diploma, but it’s too big to carry. “Instead I’ll upload a photo on my iPhone so I can show off my degree – in a humble way.”
Pictured above: On right, Cheryl Robinson-Roberts, a graduate of the Feinstein Providence Campus. On left is her granddaughter, Aaliyah Robinson.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Robinson-Roberts.