The Road from Retirement to Starting Over
One Sunday in 2008, as she sat crunching tax returns for her clients, Debra Touhey received a phone call that would change her life forever. It was her sister-in-law calling to say that her sister had just given birth to a baby boy. Because both parents were addicts and could not support him, she said, the baby would be turned over to social services that week.
Touhey’s only child, Jill, had recently finished medical school and had just gotten married, and now Touhey was looking forward to retirement with her husband. Despite the initial adjustment to a quiet house, she’d grown accustomed to the freedom and focusing on herself for the first time in her adult life.
“Just when I got used to the new normal of being an empty-nester, I was presented with the chance to do it all again,” she said. “What would happen to this beautiful baby if we didn't step in? The challenge seemed daunting, yet exciting!”
Touhey knew she needed the support of her husband Michael, who thought she had lost her mind when she told him about the idea. However, within a few hours the decision was final, and shortly thereafter, they brought their new son, Jayden, home from the hospital.
In addition to keeping up with the demands of parenting a special needs child and knowing that Debra needed to be home to care for Jayden, the couple was also navigating the challenges of the 2008 global financial crisis. Touhey was no stranger to balancing the responsibilities of a full-time job, being a mom and going to school. Decades earlier, as a young wife and mother, she juggled jobs as a bank teller and as a fast food cashier while earning her bachelor’s degree. Working the night shift at Burger King enabled her to get free meals for her family and contribute a few extra dollars to help secure a good future for them.
The family moved from New York to Florida to take advantage of the lower cost of living and to buy their first home. By age 24, while still finishing her bachelor’s degree in finance at Florida International University, Touhey was promoted to the role of Accounting Officer at a small local bank. She later became President and CEO and served on the Board of Directors for the Miami Herald Credit Union, before ultimately starting her own financial services firm specializing in investments, income tax, fraud investigations and mortgage loans.
By the time the recession hit, Touhey’s client base had dried up, and with a new addition to the family, she needed money and plans. “My clients could barely pay me for my services, and no one wanted to invest or buy homes,” she recalled. “I brainstormed each night on a plan and decided to get my master’s degree so that I could teach online.”
“Just when I got used to the new normal of being an empty-nester, I was presented with the chance to do it all again.”
—Debra Touhey, 2015 Doctor of Business Administration
After completing her master’s degree and securing an online teaching position with Grand Canyon University, Touhey quickly learned that many of her teaching colleagues had doctoral degrees. “I had to remain viable for the next 20 years to support Jayden,” she said. “I looked into doctoral programs and asked for advice from cohorts. I knew after speaking to the admissions counselors at NCU that it would be the best fit for me, and I loved that their doctoral program had no required out-of-town residencies.”
Touhey describes the transition from near-retirement to full-time student as “insanity.” After being out of school for so long, everything had changed. To help her survive, she reached out to other online students and assembled informal study groups and posted motivational quotes on her computer.
While her husband, mother and friends offered encouragement and unwavering support, Touhey’s network was small. She cut back on all expenses to hire a live-in nanny, whom she paid $300 per week. Days were spent taking Jayden to speech therapy, occupational therapy and other appointments, and Touhey recalled times when her son’s speech delays, auditory processing disorders, night terrors and anger - part of an anger disorder associated with children of addicts - made her feel stretched in all directions.
“It took sleepless nights and a laser focus on the end game for me, but nothing got in my way,” she said. “I was on a mission, and the fact that my program was flexible meant I could always finish my work when the house was quiet, even if it was 3 a.m.”
Touhey completed the NCU program in three years and graduated with a Doctor of Business Administration with a specialization in finance in 2015. Today she is a stay-at-home mom, while working part-time for three universities. In addition to teaching accounting and leadership for Grand Canyon University, she also serves as Lead Faculty, teaching accounting and finance for Colorado State University and as Lead Faculty for NCU, teaching accounting and doctoral courses.
“Being asked to teach at my alma mater is a thrill and honor that overshadows almost anything else that I do.”
“Being asked to teach at my alma mater is a thrill and honor that overshadows almost anything else that I do,” she said. “There is always that school spirit and loyalty to the school from which you graduated.”
Life for Touhey and her family has significantly improved since graduation. She and Michael are working towards their shared vision to provide Jayden with a greater tomorrow. With the money they are saving, Michael was able to retire early from his position with the U.S. Postal service to help with Jayden, and the couple treats themselves to “date night” every Saturday.
“Life is 1,000% better,” said Touhey. “It is all due to getting my doctorate at NCU.”
Although the journey has been difficult, Touhey wouldn’t have traded it for anything. To others who are weighing the opportunities of balancing school with their personal priorities, she advises, “Do this for you.”
“I've never met anyone who regretted going back to school to get another degree,” she said. “It is a temporary sacrifice. You can sleep next year!”