At age 17, he already has a student pilot’s license and a full-ride scholarship to Georgia Tech. In the future, he hopes to become not just a pilot but a commercial space flight pilot.
McBurnie attended Sprayberry High School his freshman and sophomore years, but hasn’t set foot on the Marietta campus since then. Instead, he’s been enrolled full time at Middle Georgia State College in Cochran, about 30 minutes south of Macon. He has essentially been a college student for the last two years and will enroll at Tech next fall with 78 hours of college credit — making him a college junior. He already has an associate degree in math and is on track to get a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering in less than two years. From there, McBurnie is already leaning toward getting a master’s degree.
“It’s been a very enlightening experience,” he said.
McBurnie has had to adjust to the culture of college, where professors leave it to the students to motivate themselves. He chose Georgia Tech for the high ranking of its aerospace engineering program, deciding a degree from the school would stack up well against one from anywhere else in the country.
Since leaving Cobb, he’s gone to a few Sprayberry football games and has mandatory home visits every two weeks, but he’s missed both proms and had to withdraw from all of his extracurricular activities at Sprayberry.
He said may join the band at Tech and play the trombone. He also plans to join the school’s flying club and play intramural soccer. Soon, he also hopes to get a private flying license.
And McBurnie is not even the first member of his immediate family to start college after two years of high school. McBurnie’s sister, Allegra Nkabyo, 19, did the same. She’s now attending the University of Missouri and majoring in biology.
DeJuan’s mother, Alicia McBurnie, said it was hard having her kids move out of the house at such a young age, but she wanted to prepare them for success in the future.
“He really wanted to do more advanced work. He felt high school wasn’t doing enough and he needed to be more challenged,” she said. “He decided to go. But he comes home every two or three weekends. We’re constantly talking on the phone. My son would call or text me during the night. During the day he’d let me know what classes he’s going to. I miss him from the house, but we’re still close.”
When DeJuan was 10, his grandmother, Elizabeth McBurnie, asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Noticing how he loved watching planes fly around on networks like the History Channel, his mother began asking if he might like to fly one day.
His answer was yes.
Alicia McBurnie said her son not only studies flying for classes, but he reads about it and flies model airplanes in his free time. DeJuan McBurnie has won most outstanding student in his aviation class two years in a row.
DeJuan’s father, Stephen Nkabyo, passed away seven years ago. He was living in South Africa and working as a mediator between companies. He was hit by a drunk driver in Pretoria.
“I always tell him to sustain his father’s legacy,” said Alicia McBurnie, who is from Trinidad and Tobago. “He did well, and he always wanted his children to follow in his footsteps. That’s his tradition.”
The two met in the early ’90s while both were studying at Kennesaw State. Stephen Nkabyo was from Cameroon. He moved on to finish a master’s degree, while Alicia McBurnie went into the corporate world.
In the future, DeJuan McBurnie hopes to fly for Virgin Galactic, a commercial space flight company started by Richard Branson in 2004.
“I have an interest in becoming a commercial pilot, but I’m also looking at becoming an astronaut,” he said. “I want to blend all of them together. Space flight is a natural intangible where I could pursue all of my dreams at the same time.”
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series spotlighting some of Cobb County’s outstanding members of the class of 2014. Candidates are selected by their schools, which consider criteria such as the students’ GPA, extra-curricular activities and general attitude in and out of the classroom.