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First Woman To Earn Degree From WPI Crosses Stage 60 Years Later

WORCESTER (CBS) - She's the first lady of Worcester Poly Tech, the first woman to earn a degree there, and she did it at a time when the school was men only.

On Thursday, 86-year-old Audrey Carlan did what she didn't do 60 years ago. She walked across the commencement stage and received an honorary doctorate. And her pioneering story is as important now, as it was in 1957.

"I didn't start out to set a precedent, I started out to get a master's degree," Audrey told WBZ-TV.

Audrey Carlan
Audrey Carlan (WBZ-TV)

It was 1957 and Audrey Carlan was working with her husband at a Southbridge optics company. WPI offered courses to employees there, so she started working on a master's in physics at night.

But wait, WPI only admitted men. "There were no women who were students, but they might have been in the bookkeeping offices," Audrey says.

Since Audrey enrolled through her job, she got around the men only rule. Professors were supportive and she aced her studies. She was back on campus Thursday for the first time in 60 years, to walk across the graduation stage, something she didn't do in 1957 because she was just about to have her first baby.

Audrey Carlan
Audrey Carlan receives honorary degree from WPI (WBZ-TV)

"I feel greatly honored. I really do," she says.

Her career has been rich. A mathematician, a scientist, an author and a pioneer. "I didn't think of myself as a pioneer at the time. I was thinking that yes, they will have women here soon," she says.

But it took another 11 years before women were accepted at the school. "You just do your best, that's all, whatever you are. Women, men.... women can do the work," she adds.

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