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Deborah Petri started college at age 16. Then, life got in the way. More than 30 years later she is close to finishing her degree.

Deborah Petri’s day regularly starts before four in the morning. She plods into the kitchen, makes herself a cup of coffee and settles into a dining room chair. The UW Tacoma senior doesn’t get a lot of quiet time, which is partially why she gets up so early.  “I’ll do some reading for school then take a break to do some housework before going back to the reading,” she said.

Petri’s three grandchildren wake up around 6:30 and that’s when Petri’s day really begins. “I drop them off at school before eight, then head to work and stay there until a half hour before class starts,” she said. Petri completes a similar process in the evenings where the tasks include making dinner and helping the kids with their homework before starting hers with the goal of getting everyone to bed before nine.

Petri transferred to UW Tacoma from Tacoma Community College (TCC) in the fall of 2018 to study accounting — she’s since switched to business administration. “My oldest child was constantly nagging me to go to school,” said Petri. “I needed a business education if I wanted to reach my goal of building a business resource center.”

During Petri’s third quarter at TCC her youngest child suffered a breakdown. Petri began caring for two of her daughter’s three children. A third went to live with her father but moved in with Petri in March of 2019. “Somehow, I made it through and graduated from TCC with high honors while also finally receiving a high school diploma,” said Petri.

Petri recently opened her own vintage jewelry store.Petri is scheduled to graduate in June of this year. Commencement will mark the end of an educational journey that began more than 30 years ago. Petri’s first attempt came at age 16. She dropped out of high school here in Tacoma and hitchhiked across the country for almost a year before eventually settling in Arkansas.

Petri’s childhood was one of instability and trauma. She bounced around between relatives and, at one point, ended up in foster care, before being returned to her mother. “My parents were horrifically abusive and both suffered from addiction and mental health issues,” she said. “I just couldn’t stand it anymore and I knew I could do a better job on my own — and I was right.”

The then-teenage Petri got a job at a local restaurant to pay the bills. “I had a little apartment that cost $160 a month with all the utilities,” she said. Petri planned to join the military with the goal of eventually going to college. She met with an army recruiter but was too young to enlist. “He had me do the pre-test anyway and my scores were amazing,” said Petri. “He took me down to get my GED and helped me enroll in a branch campus of Arkansas State University.”

Washington State’s Department of Child Protective Services found Petri not long after she started at Arkansas State. “They put me on a bus and sent me back to live with my mom,” she said. “I didn’t live with her. Instead, we made an agreement whereby she’d give me $100 a month in food stamps if I didn’t get a job so she could collect welfare.”

Petri had nowhere to go. She spent the next six months couch surfing and sleeping anywhere she could, including abandoned buildings. Petri became a mother at 20 and then again at 21. “I was on my own,” she said. “My fourth grade teacher got me hooked on romance novels and I think that’s partially to blame for my absolute failures in the realm of romance.”

Petri married at age 25 but the couple divorced eight years later. “It was devastating,” she said. “I lost everything.” Petri’s turbulent childhood challenged traditional definitions of home. However, she’d always felt comfortable in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. After the divorce, Petri moved back to the area with her young daughters and began the process of rebuilding.

In late January Petri celebrated her 51st birthday. During those five decades she’s worked a number of jobs and held titles such as: financial adjuster, credit manager, personal assistant and account executive. “I would rapidly get promoted and within a year or two I’d hit a ceiling because I didn’t have a degree and I’d resign and go on another adventure,” she said.

This mix of drive, intellectual curiosity and a passion for the arts led Petri to get involved in the local indie music scene. “I booked, managed and promoted acts,” she said. Petri cultivated these skills into a position with former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s 2008 presidential campaign where she served as director of social networking.

After the campaign Petri took a position with Costco. “One of my last assignments for Senator Gravel was researching how to get his book into their stores,” said Petri. “I was so impressed by the company that I applied for a job.” Petri enjoyed her time at the Issaquah-based wholesaler and would still be there if she hadn’t injured her wrist. “I’ve had five surgeries and each one made it worse,” she said.

The injury left Petri with a lot of time on her hands. She decided to get involved. “I wanted to do more for my community and for the world at large,” she said. “I got involved with the Occupy movement and became a community organizer supporting issues like housing justice, labor rights and environmental protection.”

This activism put Petri on a road to UW Tacoma and her ultimate goal of creating a business resource center in Hilltop. “I see a big need to help people be able to start businesses who themselves are not very business-minded,” she said. “Instead of having folks working two or three part-time jobs, why not help them start their own business?”

In the meantime, Petri is busy raising three children while going to school and working. Petri met an attorney while dealing with legal issues surrounding her grandchildren. “This woman just started helping me,” said Petri. “I then went to help her out for a couple of weeks and now I’ve been there a year” Following graduation, Petri plans to stay on at the law office of Meridee Mathews and hopes to enroll in the Washington State Law Clerk Program, offered by the Washington Bar Association, which allows participants to take the bar examination after studying with an experienced lawyer or judge for four years.

Books have always been important to Petri. Growing up, they provided her with a means of escape. Interestingly, multiple people have told Petri her life would make a great book. She’s open to the idea but for now she’s focused on what others have written. This is what compels her to wake long before the sun and the birds. Even so, there’s more than one way to acquire knowledge. “I believe that the most important lesson I’ve learned at UW Tacoma came from Professor Marion Eberly, who taught me how to manage stress, prioritize and accept good enough rather than striving for perfection and beating myself up for not achieving it,” said Petri. “Without her insight and support, I might have dropped out.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 19, 2020
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu