Devon Inman (C '21) once believed he was going nowhere in life. A descendant of black slaves and Mexican immigrants, Devon is originally from San Antonio, Texas. But, after his parent’s divorce and his mom’s remarriage to a military man, Devon spent most of his childhood on the move. He eventually moved out to live on his own at age 17, working at a restaurant to help make ends meet—a decision that has fostered his love for all things food and cooking. He enlisted in the U.S. military a year later. Now, at 26 years old, Devon is an English student with a concentration in Creative Writing and (potentially) Critical Theory.
Growing up in a conservative environment, Devon believed that as a man, the only way he could do something meaningful and successful with his life was to join the military. He describes his former self as “anti–intellectual,” only caring about lifting weights, punching things, shooting guns and cooking. He was surrounded by people who never encouraged him to explore intellectually and academically because they believed that “if you weren’t the quintessential Type–A man, then there was just nothing else really worthwhile.”
Following a specialized selection process, Devon was chosen to work in a clinical, medicinal setting in North Carolina, doing patient assessments and hands–on surgical procedures. He says he did well—until he didn’t. Devon had been eyeing a new position, but failed the tests to get there, leading him to "dissatisfaction" with his service.
So, at 22 when his contract expired, Devon chose not to reenlist. He serendipitously reconnected with a queer friend from middle school who invited him to live with her and other lesbian rugby players at UNC. This was a transformative and eye–opening period in Devon’s life.
“I had only ever been in the military and so this was my first time meeting liberal women in my life … It was the first time ever being exposed to anything that wasn't what Fox news told me.”
But this stage was also disorienting for Devon. Looking back, he says he felt depressed; he was surrounded by people who were so loved and accomplished. So he applied to Wake Tech community college with the hope to one day transfer to UNC where most of his friends attended. He got in.
While at Wake Tech, Devon was contacted by one of his mentors in the military who told him about programs called Warrior Scholarship Project (WSP) and Service to School (S2S) that prepare veterans for admissions to top universities. Devon adamantly resisted applying, but after encouragement from a friend, he decided it couldn’t hurt. He couldn’t have predicted what would happen next.
“These programs changed my life,” Devon said.
WSP sent him to an intensive academic bootcamp at Yale that prepared him for a higher education, and S2S helped him with his college application process, leading him to apply to a handful of prestigious institutions, such as Penn, Columbia, and UNC. He got into all three.
Ultimately, Devon chose Penn, though he previously never considered leaving North Carolina. When asked why he chose Penn, Devon laughed; his girlfriend told him to give Philly a go. So he did.
Coming to Penn was a big transition for Devon. In fact, he describes the time since he left the army as a period of fundamental change—a stage in which he has ripped apart and rebuilt the structure and foundations of his life.
“Coming here made me realize that it’s all a scam and that everything I'd been preached my whole life was exactly the values that were keeping people poor and screwed." Devon continued, "I just saw all the holes in everything I believed … I'm far more critical and discerning on my own now,” he said.
When he arrived at Penn for sophomore year, Devon considered a major in Biological Basis of Behavior, but after a comparative literature class that he found “life–changing,” decided he loved English and wanted to study it. Yet, despite all the effort it took him to get to Penn and all he felt he was learning, Devon almost dropped out of Penn that spring to work as a cook in the restaurant his friend planned to open. Devon’s life has been filled with change, but one constant has been his passion for food and cooking, so this opportunity was tempting.
Since his teenage years, Devon worked in restaurants, starting out by washing dishes and ultimately rising to role of cook. He loves everything about cooking, and restaurants have served as sanctuaries for him throughout his journey. In fact, after college, Devon dreams of opening a Mexican restaurant to connect him to his heritage because he thinks that his family "is assimilated and whitewashed."
He’d name the place “La Lechuza,” a reference to the folk–legend his Mexican great–grandma who worked as a cook for 40 years would tell him.
To Devon, though, this restaurant would be more than just a place where people would come to eat. Devon wants his restaurant to create an environment of accessibility and opportunity for veterans. He can’t help but find parallels between the military and kitchen environment, noting the two have similar values and qualifications: a strong work–ethic, resourcefulness, the ability to improvise, and communication, to name a few.
Devon hopes his restaurant can help veterans the way WSP and S2S helped him: “I want to create a straight pipeline from working in a restaurant to having access to higher education … I want [a pipeline from] line cook to top twenty colleges."
And he’s working hard to realize this dream. This summer, Devon will intern for a corporate restaurant group to learn more about the logistics and business side of running a successful restaurant.
Devon once thought he was going nowhere in life. Now, it looks like he's on a clear path.