Debra Lewis poses for a portrait with her high school diploma from Bullock Creek High School inside her home. Lewis, a 62-year-old Midland resident, recently graduated with her high school diploma after 40 years of setbacks. (Katy Kildeeemail@example.com)
In 1941, Winston Churchill advised students at Harrow School to “never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” When times are tough, remembering this advice is difficult and dreams are often unrealized.
But not for Debra Lewis.
Lewis, a 62-year-old Midland resident, recently graduated with her high school diploma after 40 years of setbacks.
“I’ve been in high places, and I’ve been in low places. But I wouldn’t trade anything for this journey,” Lewis reflected.
Lewis, who grew up in Saginaw, left home at the age of 15 when she became pregnant and dropped out of school. Over the course of the next few decades she tried to go back and finish her education, but the aspiration was never fulfilled. Instead she focused on raising her two daughters, both who are now college grads, and attained a job at The Dow Chemical Co., now known as DowDuPont. After 25 years working with the company, she had to leave due to health issues. This presented an opportunity for Lewis to complete her schooling.
“Through all of that, I always wanted to graduate because education is important to my family,” she said. “I got six grandkids and I’m trying to set an example. Grandma’s up here, Grandma isn’t quitting. Grandma doesn’t give up. Grandma fights. That’s when I buckled down.”
Three years ago, Lewis made the commitment to seriously strive for her education. Instead of simply going for her GED, she decided to go the extra mile and complete her high school diploma. She enrolled in the Education and Training Connection in Midland and took night classes.
Lewis was no stranger to studying, having earned certificates from Midland Bible Institute in 2000, 2001 and 2002. But she soon found out that secondary education presented different challenges. As an older student, Lewis’ mind worked differently than a teenager’s and she often worried about mixing up facts.
Lewis’s health presented another obstacle. She fought a daily battle with sarcoidosis, arthritis, fibromyalgia and diabetes. On top of that, she was diagnosed with kidney cancer after being in remission for six years; she underwent surgery to remove a portion of the affected kidney and has been doing well since.
“I have a lot of faith, a lot of faith. I just prayed. Family and friends were praying. They were pushing me.”
It was the love, prayers and support given by her friends and instructors that got Lewis through the hard times. One of her teachers, Kathy Carroll, who was laid off the same year that Lewis had her surgery, was called back to teach at ETC.
“And she told me, ‘I only came back to get you.’ I said, ‘I won’t let you down, whatever it takes.’ And that stayed in my mind.”
Another instructor quoted Bible verses to Lewis as a form of encouragement. One of Lewis’ friends periodically called her to check up on how she was getting through economics. Lewis also befriended another adult student and they cheered one another on to finish their education.
“Everyone was behind me, supporting me. I couldn’t let myself down. I couldn’t let God down,” Lewis said. “I had a second chance with my kidney cancer, so I got in there and did something.”
Part of the celebrations included the traditional graduation breakfast for the students. Lewis was pleased to have the opportunity to experience a lost piece of her childhood.
“I never experienced that. Somebody better come up with a prom!” she joked.
On June 8, Lewis proudly received her diploma from Bullock Creek High School. In front of 22 graduates and her family – including her 90-year-old mother – she gave one of the graduating speeches. She spoke of the trials she endured and thanked everyone who helped her persevere, advising others to “press toward the mark. Don’t give up. Whatever your goals are, go until you reach them. Don’t let nothing get in your way.”
Emboldened by her accomplishment, Lewis has her sights set on college, planning to go into church ministry. She explains that her mother raised her in the church and she appreciates how God has been there for her throughout her journey. While she hopes to someday attend institutions such as Calvin College or Spring Arbor University, as of now she’s planning to apply for the winter semester at Delta College.
“I know I can do something there now, but I want to make a difference. That’s always been my hobby. I just love getting in that Word and looking things up.”