"Elizabeth Barker Johnson is the embodiment of Winston-Salem State’s motto, ‘Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve.'"

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It’s not every day the Pinecrest Retirement Community in Hickory, North Carolina, gets to celebrate a college graduation. They did last week, though, when Elizabeth Barker Johnson was presented with a cap and gown and an invitation to take part in the graduation ceremony at Winston-Salem State University as a surprise for her 99th birthday.

Johnson had enrolled at what was then called the Winston-Salem Teachers College 70 years earlier. It was right after she returned to North Carolina after serving in World War II, as a member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion of the Women’s Army Corps, the only all-black female battalion stationed overseas during the war.

After finishing her tour of duty, Johnson signed up at Winston-Salem Teachers College, becoming the first woman to attend the college thanks to the G.I. Bill. By August 1949, she had completed her degree to become a school teacher. However, Johnson had landed a job as a teacher as soon as she completed her coursework and that new job started immediately. While she was undoubtedly happy to have the work, she couldn’t take the day off to walk in her commencement ceremony. “I couldn’t get anyone to substitute for me back then, so I had to miss my graduation,” Johnson told the Winston-Salem Journal. “It was terrible.”

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Fast forward 70 years, and the veteran who taught children in North Carolina public schools for over 30 years, is finally getting to walk in a graduation ceremony. “Elizabeth Barker Johnson is the embodiment of Winston-Salem State’s motto, ‘Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve,’” said WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson, told the Winston-Salem Journal. “We are inspired by her and excited to give her the opportunity, 70 years later, to finally walk across the stage at commencement.”

She will share the stage with Rams from the class of 2019 when they graduate on May 10. “I just can’t believe this is happening,” Johnson said. “I really think I’m dreaming.”