From the age of three, when his mother died, De’Von Jennings had no stable or caring home. His father abused him mentally and physically and allowed others to abuse him. Children’s Services got involved when De’Von, then 11, became suicidal and was taken to the hospital. Doctors saw the marks where his father hit him with boards.

“I told them I fell off a skateboard, which I never rode a skateboard in my life, but I was scared.” His father denied the abuse and said that De’Von was mentally unbalanced. “They were messing with my head so much. I wish I was as smart then as I am now.”

In middle school, De’Von entered the foster care system. He was placed in a foster home, then bounced around from foster homes to relatives’ homes. None lasted very long. He liked school because “I wouldn’t have to go home or anything.” He threw himself into sports and extracurricular activities. Somehow, he held on to a measure of optimism. “Even when I was at my lowest, I always thought if I just keep these grades up, something good could happen down the road.”

The first “something good” was an English teacher in high school, Antonia Mulvihill. “She took an interest in me. She talked to me, brought me food every day to school and took my writing skills to a new level.” De’Von thrived under her high expectations and attention. In the summer, he went to a job fair and landed an internship with a construction company because he dreamed of becoming a civil engineer. He was able to follow a hotel from idea to completion.

When De’Von was back in court caught in yet another custody battle, Mulvihill went to court and testified that it would not be in De’Von’s best interest to have to move again, and change schools for his senior year. The judge agreed.

In the summer of 2012, De’Von received the Beat the Odds award at CDF’s conference in Cincinnati, and also won a Bill Gates and a Horatio Alger scholarship. “I’m so blessed it all came together. When you break off from all that bad stuff, life is so good.”

He is now a sophomore at Arizona State University, studying civil engineering with a 3.51 GPA. He has worked for the City of Phoenix—Streets Department and the Arizona Department of Transportation as an engineer intern. “It was a rough transition from high school but I pulled it off. There’s so much stuff I didn’t know coming out of an inner city school.” He is well on his way. In late August, he flew to Hong Kong to spend a semester at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as an engineering exchange student.