There was nothing traditional about University of Colorado senior Sarah Deacon’s journey to college.
An abusive and mentally ill mother was just one of the challenges leading to what Deacon calls “rock bottom.”
At age 17, Deacon dropped out of high school, moved out of her dad’s house and was homeless on the streets of Seattle. A weekly lunch at Denny’s with her dad was the only thing that kept her going.
Now, nearly 14 years later, Deacon is graduating from CU with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in molecular, cellular and developmental biology — and her success, she said, is partially due to her struggles.
“I never thought I would go to college and be successful at it,” Deacon said. “I grew up in a trailer park off of I-5 and no one in my family finished college, so it’s just not something I expected to do.”
What: CU’s winter commencement ceremony
When: 9:30 a.m. Friday. Guests should plan to be seated by 9 a.m.
Where: Coors Events Center
More info: People entering the center are asked not to bring large purses or bags. City and campus roads may be congested for about 90 minutes before the ceremony and an hour afterward. Parking lots and gray meters near the Coors Events Center are free for commencement parking.
After a month of living on the streets alone, Deacon decided she wanted more from life. It was all uphill from there.
“I had a personal revelation or something and realized I really cared about my life and wanted to make it better,” Deacon said.
Deacon moved back in with her dad, began working full time and took community college classes at night.
Deacon said she experienced early success working with energy policies for a company in California, but it wasn’t long before her lack of education caught up to her.
“I was really good at my job and a lot of people I worked with told me that,” Deacon said. “But they were always shocked when I told them I didn’t have a degree or even a high school diploma.”
Deacon eventually got her GED and moved to Boulder with her husband in 2007. She began classes at CU in the fall of 2008 and Friday, Deacon will join the nearly 2,200 CU students graduating this fall.
“Now, I am officially qualified to do what I know I am capable of,” Deacon said. “I’s a lot more than just a degree, it’s everything that I’ve been through, getting to this point, and surviving it.”
CU psychologist Glenda Russell said it’s common for first-generation students like Deacon to see their challenges as motivation to succeed in college.
“There’s usually a fair amount of challenge tied up in what (first-generation students) are doing but they also often have a great deal of motivation and they value school in a way not all students do,” Russell said. “They value it more because they didn’t take it for granted growing up that they were going to go to college so they see it as a unique opportunity.”
Russell said the life experiences of many non-traditional students can give them resilience that can help them succeed in college.
“They have skills for dealing with things because they’ve encountered difficulties before,” Russell said. “A lot of research says having had stressors and overcoming difficulties before college gives students a sense that they can do these things.”
Deacon said she’s been inspired by her younger sisters, who have received college degrees as well, and by professors who were passionate about their fields. Deacon said it was a community college professor in California who sparked her interest in public health.
“Patient care just lights me up,” Deacon said. “I’m excited to graduate so I can move on from school and start working on my research.”
Deacon has been working with Stacy Fischer, assistant professor at the CU Anschutz campus, doing research on healthcare policy. Deacon said she’s looking forward to doing research for a while, but she’s not stopping at a bachelor’s degree.
“Now the goal is to kill the MCATs, kill the GRE, publish something and get someone to pay my way through medical school,” Deacon said.
Her goals may seem lofty to some, but Deacon’s best friend Erin Houck said setting the bar high is “just second nature to Sarah.”
“Sarah has a ‘get ‘er done’ attitude and it takes a lot of self discipline and self confidence to achieve what she has,” Houck said. “That’s not something you get automatically, it’s something you learn and she went through a lot to learn that.”
Houck said Deacon has a proactive attitude and her problem solving skills — most of them learned during the “tough stuff” — are the key to her success.
“These accomplishments are just another mark on her checklist now,” Houck said.
“She’s a really amazing woman and she’s using her experiences to inspire others,” Houck said. “What’s important now is that she has become one of those people who motivated her. That’s what she’s contributing to the world.”