Alumni Success Story: Deb Marshall ’06

Motivated by the desire to create a better life for her children, Deb Marshall ’06 is no stranger to hard work. She is a mother, wife, grandmother, employee, volunteer and adventure seeker! Deb spends her days as a systems engineer at Van Andel Institute, where she helps manage information technology hardware and software systems. Learn more about Deb and her role as a systems engineer below.

Tell us about yourself, Deb!

I graduated from DeWitt High School. I got married in my junior year and I had my first child on my first day of my senior year. I had to grow up early. I had four kids before I was 24 years old. Our marriage didn’t work out, so I had to work to support my family. I knew I had to make a better life for myself and my family, so I decided to go to school. I started at Lansing Community College in the fall of 1984 with just two classes because I had a Pell grant, working full time and being a single mom. One night in the spring of 1985, my 11 year old son was doing homework at the kitchen table.  I was doing dishes and talking to someone on the phone, probably my dad. I was telling him I just couldn’t keep up and I was going to have to quit. It was just too much. My son stopped doing his homework and said “Mom you can’t quit now, you’ve come too far to quit!” That’s what drove me and it was that semester that I met my husband. So I’m glad I didn’t quit – my husband and I have been married for more than 30 years.

I graduated from LCC with my associates in applications programming in 1992. Then I took some time off from school to put my kids through college. After working for Auto Owners Insurance and Jackson National Life, I found a home at Steelcase for 12 years where I decided to return to school and enroll at DU. I earned my degree in 2006 in network engineering. Now, I work at Van Andel Institute as a systems engineer.

Tell us about your experience at DU.

Enrolling at Davenport was an easy decision. I loved how the curriculum was hands-on! The philosophy at Davenport wasn’t teaching to pass a test, but rather teaching so you knew the content. I remember one night taking a test – our instructor started the test at 7:00 p.m., I didn’t leave the building until 2:00 a.m. to make sure I knew the content. My last class was a study abroad trip to China – it was a phenomenal experience!

Tell us more about your trip to China!

My trip to China was a lot of “firsts.”  It was the first time I had been overseas.  It was the first time I had taken a long vacation – 3 weeks. The first time I was away from my family.

A key thing to make staying in a foreign country work, is that you have to adapt to their ways. Every meal I ate with chopsticks except one and that was pizza at Pizza Hut.  Meals were interesting unless we were in the school cafe. You have to “try” everything on the table even the big fish that still had it’s head with eyes still on it; no picky eating.  Presentation of the meal is very important to them.  And while I was taught that it was polite to “clean your plate,” in China you will be given more to eat because it’s a sign you need more food.

There were a few things that really stood out.  When we first had a round table discussion with the students about questions about the two countries, one of the first things they said was ‘we don’t eat cats.” The next was the political conversations we had in the dorm of the grad students. Also the other thing that I noticed that several of my fellow students in China had been accepted by multiple universities and when asked where they were going to go, the statements were I’d like to go “here”, but the final decision is up to my parents.

In a nutshell, what do you do?

I am a systems engineer at Van Andel Institute, a cancer and Parkinson’s disease research institute in Grand Rapids. At a large company, I would probably be specialized in just one thing either servers, email, phones, or databases. But, at VAI we work as a team on all these areas to ensure all the hardware and software systems are working properly. I love my job because it allows me to think outside of the box to create solutions, keeping it fresh with new challenges.

What makes you unique?

I don’t let things stand in my way. I have learned to preserve through challenges and make the best of every situation. Hard work is in my blood. My dad worked at GM for years. When I was younger, he showed me what it meant to have a good work ethic. His mantra was, ‘it takes the same amount of effort to get to work 15 minutes early as it does to get there 15 minutes late.’

What is your dream job?

I love the job I have now! I’m working on balance so I have time to go “play” – sew, cook, golf, backpack and enjoy time with my family.

What inspires you to support DU?

I had a great experience at Davenport. I support DU because I like how Davenport teaches what the students need to know to get a job. The programs are current.

What do you do when you are not working?

My family is everything! We go to the lake and spend time outdoors. I recently returned from a backpacking trip to Pictured Rocks 42 miles with a backpack on, over 50 miles total in 6 days. I also spend a lot of my free time volunteering with kids! I work in my grandkids’ classrooms and spend time volunteering at the First Tee of Grand Rapids, where the  mission is to teach kids both values and life skills through the game of golf, particularly those who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to learn because of income or transportation barriers.


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