By the 1970s, Rutgers University had long established a reputation as one of the country's academic leaders. Broadway actress Sheryl Lee Ralph was just a teen at the time, but tells "Oprah: Where Are They Now?" that she had always been eager to attend the prestigious university.
"I remember high school being very challenging because I always wanted to get somewhere, and I'd always wanted to go to Rutgers," Ralph says in the above video.
The actress was inspired to attend Rutgers by 1919 alum Paul Robeson, the son of a former slave, raised during the segregation era. Robeson became a star football player at Rutgers and later went on to become not just an internationally renowned entertainer, but also an inspired activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
"Paul Robeson was an incredible athlete, an incredible orator, an incredible actor, an incredible singer and very brilliant," she says. "I thought that if a black man… could be all of those things at the turn of that century, in a place and a time where it was thought, 'Who are you to be all of these things and be a man of color, too?', that's the school that I wanted to go to."
Though Ralph had her sights set on Rutgers long before graduating high school, there was one problem: Back then, the university only admitted male students.
Fulfilling her dream may have felt unlikely, but everything changed in 1972, after Ralph graduated high school early at age 15. That year, Rutgers changed its policy and began welcoming female students for the first time since its founding in 1766. Ralph's father is the one who gave her the good news.
"One day, he cut this little article out of [the newspaper]. He gave it to me and it said, 'Rutgers opens its door to young women,'" Ralph recalls with a smile. "I applied and I got into that first class."
Within three years of arriving on campus, Ralph had completed her degree (in English literature and theater arts) and became the university's youngest female graduate at the time at age 19.
More about Sheryl Lee Ralph:
Original dreamgirl's dramatic run-in with Diana Ross
Where Sheryl Lee Ralph keeps her Tony nomination
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