- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

DENTON, Texas (AP) - Darla Ray is a nontraditional college student. So it stands to reason that she celebrated Mother’s Day as a nontraditional mom.

In a lot of ways, Darla Ray is a normal senior at the University of North Texas.

She’s applying to graduate programs, planning a foray on Fry Street before her graduation and has a rotating cast of friends and confidants inside her Traditions Hall dorm room.

But Ray is a bit different than most other UNT undergrads. She is 49 years old, and her daughters, Whitney “Free” Smith and Whitley Smith, are fellow college students at UNT.

“I have a terrible case of Peter Pan syndrome, so I think I fit right in, actually,” Ray told the Denton Record-Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1A1lHot)with a laugh. “It was almost as though I was watching a movie of someone else (this year); it’s so hard to believe that this is my life and I’ve been living my life to the fullest to this degree and done so many things that others would never dream about doing, like living in a dorm.”

Going to college was always a given for her children, Ray said. Whitley says she didn’t know until she got to high school that college was even optional. However, Ray was never able to complete her own studies because she dropped out to get married and start a family.

When Ray divorced, Free was 4 and Whitley was just 6 months. Back then, she was focused on meeting her daughters’ needs and not on her career or personal life.

“I ended up basically raising them by myself,” she said, after her ex-husband had to move to another military base. “I did whatever I had to do to raise my children right. I didn’t date during that time because I didn’t want to raise my daughters with men coming and going, and I put them in the best schools I could.”

To keep the girls in activities, Ray worked odd jobs, like cleaning the dance studio where Whitley took classes.

College became a priority for Ray after was she hospitalized for dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the skin, muscles, connective tissue and vital organs. She was diagnosed in 2009 and was told she’d never see her children graduate high school. She lost her job, unable to work in production because her body had become so weak.

She started with classes at Tarrant County College, and got back enough strength to join Free at UNT in fall 2013. At first, Ray was hesitant to go where Free was already enrolled, but was drawn to the diversity of the student body. When Free read Ray her acceptance letter, Ray was ready to go to UNT.

“For me, coming back and being able to finish my college education is like the icing on the cake for them,” Ray said. “It has never been easy, but it has been worth it.”

At first, Ray and Free continued the traditional mother-daughter relationship on campus. For example, Ray would meet Free outside of her classroom to bring her food. They would schedule seeing each other on campus.

As time passed and Ray settled into school, Ray began to develop her own college experience with new friends and activities. Ray began to introduce Free to other people as her friend. But Free didn’t like that routine.

“After like four or five times, I asked her why she was introducing me as her friend, and she was like, ‘Well, I don’t want you to be embarrassed,’” Free said. “I told her, ‘Mom, that hurts my feelings when you tell people you’re my friend.’ I want people to know I’m her kid and she’s awesome.”

Once Whitley joined them on campus in the fall of 2014 as a freshman - the same semester Ray moved into the dorm - mother and daughters decided they did not want people to see them as the Three Musketeers.

Now, Ray has a mix of friends she considers peers and some that she calls her godchildren, and she always has people in her dorm room, Whitley said.

“They are always having a conversation or she made them food; there’s always someone in there,” she said. “I really enjoy seeing her personality being contagious to everyone and them being so accepting. I love seeing this new sense of revival in her; that’s the best part.”

The three plan regular dinners and time to catch up, but spend most of their time on campus independently. All three have different majors and live separately, so most of the overlap is intentional.

When Ray decided to stop commuting from Fort Worth last fall, she said she knew it was important to make sure she doesn’t treat her daughters like little girls.

“Even before I knew I was coming here, it was important to me to allow them to go off to college so they could learn how to grow up, make decisions on their own and become adults,” Ray said. “So when I came here, that was still important to me. It’s time for them to do that, so I pulled back.”

Ray is seeing her eldest graduate this weekend and is making plans for herself after she graduates in August. After that, Whitley will continue on to her sophomore year at UNT.

Ray will finish her degree in rehabilitation counseling and has applied to a UNT graduate program in the same field. She is also preparing to apply for jobs this fall. She wants to motivate people to accomplish seemingly unreachable goals - just like she did.

“I want to encourage people who feel like they can better themselves and reach their potential, and I want to help them realize they actually can do that with disabilities, challenges or obstacles to overcome; they can do that,” she said. “I just feel having lived it myself, there’s some validity in that.”

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Information from: Denton Record-Chronicle, https://www.dentonrc.com

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