(CNN)One minute she was a healthy nursing student, and the next she was a patient.
Julie Harless was trying to become an RN at 50, but a recent diagnosis made her believe that dream would never be achieved.
Harless decided to go back to school in 2017 to earn a degree from Ashland Community & Technical College in Kentucky. She had been working as a nursing assistant for almost two decades.
But last week she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung and ovarian cancer, and it was also found in her hips and tailbone. Her condition rapidly declined.
"Last month, she was sitting in class smiling," Natalie Robinson, the school's nursing program coordinator, told CNN affiliate WSAZ. "This month, she's in hospice."
Her classmates learned she was not expected to live to their graduation in May 2020. So, they decided to bring the honor to her bedside.
"Julie kept saying, 'Well, all this hard work I've done is for nothing.' We wanted her to know it was worth it," Robinson said.
A crowd of more than 100 people had a surprise pinning ceremony at Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in Ashland on Wednesday. Nursing students traditionally receive a pin to wear on their uniforms when they graduate.
"She's the epitome of what a nurse should be," clinical instructor Lynn Hill said. "I hope (her classmates) take just a little bit of Julie and strive to become what Julie is."
Her family was touched by the gesture and overwhelmed that the program would provide the honor Harless had dreamed about.
"It was amazing," said her son Jordan. "She wanted to be an inspiration to other people to not give up, to keep fighting. She's a very strong and amazing person."
Her sister, Barb Harless, is also in the program. She plans to wear Julie's pin if she cannot attend the actual graduation ceremony in 2020.
A photo caption in earlier versions of this story has been revised to correct the spelling of Harless.