Overcoming homelessness, surviving a category 5 hurricane and losing his brother in a car accident, Devin Burnett has beat the odds again and again. Through it all, one constant kept him moving forward: mentors have gone out of their way to help him succeed.
On May 5, 2019, he achieved the dream he never thought he could attain; he earned his bachelor’s degree in professional communication.
“It never crossed my mind 10 years ago that I would be a graduate from Florida State University right now,” he said.
For most of his life, Burnett and his three younger siblings lived with his single mother and his grandmother in Joliet, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Life was pretty good with family surrounding him, he said, until financial troubles forced his grandmother to close the restaurant she owned and operated. The family packed up and moved to Georgia, where they stayed with an uncle until he was evicted. Next, they headed to Panama City, where again, promises of a place to stay quickly fell apart.
At just 11 years old, Burnett, his siblings, mother and grandmother arrived in Panama City with just a few belongings. They found shelter at the Panama City Rescue Mission for four months until Burnett’s mother applied for low-income housing at the Springfield Housing Authority and later got a job at Trane in Lynn Haven.
Burnett transferred from Mowat to Jinks Middle School, where he met “Ms. Andrews,” the teacher who would change his life. Andrews recommended he apply for the Bay Education Foundation’s Take Stock in Children (TSIC) program, which offers a college scholarship to low-income students who meet regularly with a mentor and maintain good grades and attendance.
Although he expected his application to be rejected, he applied for the program. He got in, and he was paired with Tyndall Air Force Base engineer York Thorpe as his mentor.
“I thought, ‘Wow! I can really go to college!’ even though 13-year-old me didn’t really know what that meant at the time,” Burnett said.
Thorpe met Burnett weekly at Bay High School to help him navigate the demands of high school.
“Mr. Thorpe was like my high school cheerleader because high school can be very difficult,” Burnett said. “It’s hard to stay motivated. I didn’t always have what I needed, but I made do with what I had. Half way through high school, things started to hit me a little harder. I started to struggle a little bit, but I caught right back up.”
“Devin is extremely strong,” Thorpe said. “He often times didn’t know where his next meal was going to come from but he persevered through all of that to do extremely well in school. When so many other students may have given up, he stayed focused and never once complained about the life he had lived.”
With Thorpe by his side, Burnett graduated from Bay High School’s Advanced International Certificate Education program. He not only earned the TSIC scholarship, but also the Florida Bright Future’s Scholarship.
“College has always been something that I heard people talk about, but there was also a time when I didn’t think it was possible for me to go because of the cost,” he said. “It was just like every other thing I heard about on television, and it didn’t help that I knew no one who attended college or encouraged me to go.”
Burnett earned his Associate of Arts degree at Gulf Coast State College and transferred to FSU Panama City. In 2016, he was hired as an assistant at Burke Blue, a law office in downtown Panama City. Responsibilities included scanning documents and running papers between the law office and city hall.
Overcoming Hurricane Michael’s destruction
In the fall of 2018, life was good. Burnett was preparing to graduate in the spring and had two years of work experience. Like so many other times in his life, the place he called home was about to change again.
On Oct. 10, Hurricane Michael destroyed Burnett’s family trailer. He returned to town a few days after the storm to find his home in shambles.
With very few places left livable in Bay County, his mother, grandmother and siblings moved to North Carolina. Burnett stayed behind to finish college. For the first time in his life, he found himself living alone, hundreds of miles from his family. The first few nights he slept in a chair at the law firm. Then his art professor, Mandy Yourick, asked how he was doing.
“I could tell that where he was staying was not ideal, so I pressed him a little bit more and offered that he stay at my place,” she said. Burnett lived with Yourick and her partner for five months until he found a place of his own nearby.
“I’m very thankful for what Mandy did for me,” Burnett said. “If she didn’t do that, I’m not sure what I would have done.”
Losing a loved one
After being on his own for about four weeks, tragedy struck again. As the Burnett family traveled on Interstate 10 from North Carolina to Panama City to see Burnett graduate, the minivan they were in flipped four times ejecting his 15-year-old sister, Denyvia, and 16-year-old brother, Theo. Theo spent a month at Shands Hospital, where he underwent five surgeries but did not survive.
“I feel sad every day, and I miss my brother a whole lot,” Burnett said. “The only thing I know to do is do the best I can because that is what my brother would want me to do.”
Burnett has applied to several law schools and wants to become a public defender.
“Devin is going to do great things,” Yourick said. “I absolutely see him carrying out his dream.”
“I think my life has been a summary of many ups and downs, but everything I went through was perhaps a blessing in disguise,” Burnett said. “I may not be where I am today if life did not carry me here.”