TARBORO, N.C. — Earlier this year, Crystal Gray was halfway through the surgical technology program at Edgecombe Community College and working long hours at UNC Health Nash.

She also was looking forward to her youngest daughter graduating high school.

Then a long shot paid off, and the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, offered Gray a summer internship – one of four such offers the No. 1 rated hospital in the nation made this year.

The only problem was that Gray’s daughter graduates June 10, and the summer program starts June 3.

“My daughter was crying when I told her, but they were tears of joy,” the 47-year-old Gray says. “She told me, ‘Mom, you cannot pass this up.’”

Soon, Gray will board a plane bound for Minnesota, where she’ll spend two months training among the best in the field of surgical technology.

“I am super excited,” Gray says. “It’s a humbling experience. I worked very hard to get here. This is a very big deal for me.”

The Yonkers, NY, native says she grew up poor. By the time she was 28, she was a single mother to four children. A decade ago, she moved her family to North Carolina, where she met her husband. Then, in 2020, they were in Rocky Mount, and Gray was working as a certified nurse aide.

“I decided I wanted to do more hands-on patient care,” she says. “I applied for the nursing program at Edgecombe Community College, and also the surgical technology program.

“I didn’t get into nursing, but then everything fell into place the way it was supposed to.”

Suzi Shippen-Wagner, chair of the surgical technology program at the college, says Gray is a hard-working, tenacious student.

“She is a curious student who is eager to learn,” Shippen-Wagner says. “To my knowledge, this internship is a first for any ECC student, and I’m so grateful for her opportunity to study at this prestigious hospital.

“I’m sure she will come home with experiences that she can teach me about.”

A surgical technician is responsible for preparing operating rooms for procedures, assisting surgeons, and maintaining a sterile field throughout. Some of the qualifications for the Mayo Clinic internship included grade requirements and volunteer work.

At ECC, Gray served as a Student Ambassador and was an officer in the Student Government Association. She also served as a marshal at graduation this year. She says her experience at the college has been wonderful, and the faculty and staff have been a big influence on her life.

“ECC has a lot of great instructors,” Gray says, naming Shippen-Wagner, Lindsey Brickhouse, and Laura Otrimski in particular. “Mrs. Shippen-Wagner wrote me a letter of recommendation, and I was floored by it.

“It’s wonderful to have that kind of support. It’s so nice to have faculty who are encouraging.”

Gray says she knows it’s cliché, but her mantra of “It’s never too late” keeps coming back to her. A non-traditional student who will be 48 later this year, Gray says she will be only one of two in her family to graduate from college. She is on target to graduate in December.

“Nothing good comes without hard work,” she adds. “It can be done, one step at a time. It’s been a long road, but it’s paid off.”