Published: Dec 18, 2011 02:00 AM
Modified: Dec 16, 2011 06:33 PM
Weeping, in the middle of the night, Roy Lee Rice walked around and around the Old Well at UNC.
"It was my dream to go to Carolina since I was a little kid," he said. "Charles Kuralt, Andy Griffith, James Taylor - it's all wrapped up together. And now, for the rest of my life, I can say I'm an alumnus."
It has taken him 20 years.
Although his mother died in 2009, Rice is proud that his father, Ben, will see him graduate today with a bachelor's degree in history and geography.
Rice graduated from Clyde A. Erwin High School in his native Asheville in 1991 and, that fall, went to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
He stopped after four quarters because the courses he had taken had not resonated with him. Then, he was off to Chapel Hill, where he became enamored of the town and the University.
Rice moved back to Asheville, where he worked at the Grove Park Inn. He went back to Asheville-Buncombe and found it fascinating.
"I moved here again in 1999 to go to Carolina, even if it was part time," Rice said. "I started working as a waiter. I took two classes, and I enjoyed it."
He continued until 2002, when positions at restaurants in Charleston and Atlanta lured him away through 2006. In 2005, he came to a friend's UNC commencement ceremony in which the Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard University gave a moving address.
"I went out on the concourse in Kenan Stadium and called my mom and said, 'Mama, I'm doing it. I'm coming back to Carolina."
Since then, he's been plugging away at his courses while working as a waiter. He'd like to teach high school some day. For now, he'll bask in reaching his goal.
"My heart belongs to this place," he said.
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