Officer and Gentleman Academy alum Michael Burrell Jr. heads to Morehouse College


Photo courtesy of Adam Howard

Michael Burrell Jr poses with Officer Adam Howard and his mother Jotonya Willis. Burrell, who has aged out of the Officer and Gentleman Academy, still attends meetings to support others in the program.

Yiming Fu, City Editor

Inspired by role models like Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee and Thurgood Marshall, Evanston Township High School senior Michael Burrell Jr. always had his heart set on Morehouse College. 

In December, his dreams came true. He’ll be pursuing a degree in computer science at the historically Black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta. As he described the moment he opened his acceptance letter, his mother Jotonya Willis chimed in enthusiastically. 

“It was 10:16 p.m. at night when he told me,” Willis said. She looked at Michael, thinking back to the moment. “It’s very hard to get into Morehouse. Very hard. I was just so excited that I was speechless.” 

Michael, 17, keeps himself busy. He mentors Black youth in Evanston middle schools through the Officer and Gentleman Academy, an after school program started by Evanston police officer Adam Howard that aims to inspire, empower and uplift young Black men. The program, which meets after school once a week, provides lessons on life skills from tying a tie to managing finances. 

Michael also said he is a nationally ranked orator in speech and debate competitions, a Youth Leader at the Evanston YWCA and the co-chair of Emerge, an ETHS organization that advocates in the community for affordable housing, racial justice and gun violence prevention projects.

He has received awards from the mayor including the “Academic Excellence” award in 2018 and 2019 and the “Quintessential Gentleman” award for 2019 through Officer and Gentleman Academy.

“Looking back at eighth grade, I wouldn’t have expected myself to be like this,” Michael said. “I would have still probably have been really shy and still be really reserved if it wasn’t for OGA.”

Willis said she first heard about the program through a friend, who was also a single mother raising a son of color. Before he was a mentor, Michael participated in the program. Willis said she enrolled Michael so he could learn from a father figure and have men of color as role models.

Michael, who graduated the program in 2018, said his involvement was key to building his confidence. He said he considers Howard and the other officers in the program to be family. 

Howard repeatedly stressed Michael’s academic achievements. He added that Michael is an exemplary leader at the academy, and he knows how to set the tone for others. 

“He’s very quiet,” Howard said. “Although when he does speak, everyone listens. And that’s the type of leader that you need in an organization. More action comes with less words.”

After Morehouse, Michael said he aspires to work as a software engineer at a major company like Google. He hopes to start a nonprofit to make STEM education more accessible to all. 

Ultimately, Michael said he wants to be able to give back to the Officer and Gentleman Academy. He said he’ll always keep his OGA tie, which he received at the end of his first year in the program. The tie is black, green and red, with his name monogrammed on the back. 

“It means success, family, so many other things,” Michael said. “I will always remember who gave that to me.” 

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Twitter: @yimingfuu

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