A Lifetime of “Woulda, Coulda, Shouldas”: One Woman’s 42-year Journey to Graduation

Deborah DamkoDeborah Damko’s brother graduated from Lake Forest College. Her sister graduated from Northern Illinois University. And Deborah…well, in 1975, she had started college – at Harper, in fact – but she had never finished.

Lured away from school by her first “real career job”, Deborah left college to work as a receptionist at a downtown law firm. After eight years as an administrative professional, she transitioned into a career in sales and marketing where she worked with several startups. Despite her success, the fact that she hadn’t finished college nagged at her. Inertia won out, however, and she made no effort to do anything about it. That is until a few years ago, when her mother unexpectedly passed away.

“My sister, Laura, and I were in shock,” recalled Deborah. “We could not believe we were the only ones left in the family, having already lost our brother and father. At that point, I was in my mid-50s and felt like someone I did not recognize or really like. I was fat and invisible to the world as well as to myself.” Deborah was more than 120 pounds overweight and found it difficult to walk even a short distance. “I was scared and embarrassed by the thought of being left behind or missing out on the rest of my life.  At that point, I viewed my life as a series of ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas.’ There are no words to express the incredible loss of my mother, but I needed to snap to it and realize all the blessings in life I was given.”

Deborah Damko Transformation

Deborah Damko, then (left) and now (right)

Deborah shifted her mind set. She decided to return to Harper and began investigating the Fast Track program. Her first question, “How many years is this going to take me?” Imagine her surprise when Erin Loughlin, a Fast Track counselor, told her she only needed three classes to complete her associate degree in general studies. Three classes! Math, science and humanities. Of course, to take math, she needed to take a placement test. The walk from the car to the testing center exhausted her. “Even walking at a snail’s pace and continually stopping to rest, I was out of breath by the time I reached the examination room. The next day, I joined Weight Watchers.” From that point on, Deborah began transforming herself. “Walking to class each week got a little easier. I went from not being able to lower the desk over my legs to being able to cross my legs with room to spare. I was able to stand straight, hold my head high and participate in class, confident with my work and contribution. With this newfound joy for life and hunger for learning, I not only earned my associate degree, I studied and, in February, got my real estate broker’s license,” beamed Deborah. “I am on my way to a new adventure. Everything in life is about timing, but it is never too late to make a change, learn something new.”

Laura and Deborah Damko

Laura Damko (left) and Deborah (right), together they lost 250 lbs.

Deborah will be proudly crossing the stage at commencement on May 19, and her sister Laura will be there to cheer her on.

Please join us for this year’s extra-special 50th Anniversary Graduation Ceremony, 11 a.m., May 19, at the Outdoor Pavilion. Our Commencement  Speaker is David Coleman, President and CEO of the College Board.