Homelessness hasn't stopped Purnell
By Ellie Aguilar - Staff Reporter
By Ellie Aguilar
Dr. David Purnell knows a thing about what students might be facing.
New communication professor at Highline has been homeless four times, lost his wife in a fire, and has faced a career collapse during economic recession.
Purnell, 53, was born in San Diego but was raised on a farm in Virginia where he and his family were very poor. Since then Dr. Purnell has lived in 30 states, has visited all 50 states, and visited 50 countries.
"I want students to know that I'm approachable and I know what struggle is. Not everyone is able to just come to class and go home, have security and have someone be there to support you," said Dr. Purnell.
At the age of 14, Purnell faced homelessness for the first time.
"My mom had just left my dad and she wasn't allowed to work because the man is supposed to take care of the house. We did stay in a basement at my mom's friend house so we did have shelter. We were sleeping on the floor and we were still displaced," Dr. Purnell said.
After their time of struggle and bad home situation, Dr. Purnell was the first on both sides of his family to graduate from high school. He then decided to go to college at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"No one in my family was religious but I went to church very regularly and somehow decided I should be a pastor," Dr. Purnell said.
While at the four-year private Christian university he changed his major a couple times he said but the biggest change that happened to him had nothing to do with his studies.
"I was in a house fire. I lost my wife in that fire and I went to the school to say 'You know this is what happened, I need a place to stay.' They told me that for some amount of dollars I could stay in a dorm. I was really pissed because that's not a very Christian thing to do," said Dr. Purnell.
He then left the school and the church and was once again homeless at the age of 19.
"This shook my faith pretty hard because already having suffered a great tragedy than not having any type of help from the church. I stopped going to church for a long time," he said.
Dr. Purnell said that in the early '80s there was only one church that had any kind of assistance and that was a soup kitchen. That soup kitchen would be his one meal of the day during the time he was homeless.
"I would go during the middle of the day just to sustain myself because I had lost everything in that fire," Dr. Purnell said.
It was then that Dr. Purnell had a what he said was an epiphany. He said that he couldn't feel sorry for himself because there were people that had bigger struggles than he did.
"It just struck me that half the world would want to trade places with me. I decided then that I was never going to allow myself to get that down emotionally again," said Dr. Purnell.
To get back on his feet, Dr. Purnell joined the military and served one tour in the US Air Force. He was stationed in Washington, D.C.
"While I waited to go to the military I moved back home but again I didn't like being there so I moved to Virginia Beach and that's the third time I was homeless," he said.
Dr. Purnell, now 20 years old, had a job but couldn't afford to pay rent for a house or apartment by the beach he said.
"I had money and ate at the nicest restaurants in town but I slept on the beach. It was actually kind of a good time to be homeless. I was able to do a lot of things I wouldn't have been able to do if I was trying to pay rent every month," said Dr. Purnell.
Shortly after Dr. Purnell left the military he moved to Florida and found a job.
"I was like a nomad or gypsy, I went from job to job. One year I had 16 W-2 forms. But later somehow, luck I guess, I settled with this optician and then from there they trained me to start taking patient history, assisting him with surgeries," he said. With hands-on training and experience, Dr. Purnell went from being paid $8 per hour to $120,000 per year.
During the rise of Dr. Purnell's career in ophthalmology at the age of 28 he faced another sudden turn of events.
"I was moving from Georgia to California for a job. This was before phone and all that stuff and once I get there they tell me that they couldn't afford to hire me. I had already sold everything put a few belongs in my car and drove," said Dr. Purnell.
While his money was running out, Dr. Purnell decided to go to a bar.
"I went to a bar to get drunk and I said I'll figure it out tomorrow. When I walked into the bar these two guys were arguing and I heard one of them say 'You're fired'. So, I walked up to him and asked if he was looking for a bartender. I didn't know how to bartend but he hired me right there and I started working. I slept on that pool table of that bar for about two months until I raised enough money to get an apartment," Dr. Purnell said.
After two months of homelessness, Dr. Purnell eventually got back to his ophthalmology career and again started making money.
"With the job I had I ended up with an executive position where I was making really good money for the first time in my life, my nice six-figure income. I was training people that worked in surgery centers to use the equipment that the company I was working for was selling. I ended up doing all the international training so that's how I travelled so much," Dr. Purnell said.
This six-figure salary didn't last forever. During the 2008 financial crisis, the company that Dr. Purnell worked for started to lay employees off.
"Because I didn't have a degree I couldn't make a lateral move to another company. I didn't want to start at ground zero and work my way up, so I went back to school," Purnell said.
He finished his studies at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa. He got a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in English, and a doctorate in communication with an emphasis in interpersonal communication.
Dr. Purnell was hired at his alma mater as a visiting professor which was a one-year position. After the year was over he was hired at a full-time tenured position at Mercer University in Georgia.
"I then moved to Washington because my partner got a job here and we said whoever got a job first we'd move. He obviously got the job first," Dr. Purnell said.
But Dr. Purnell had been to Washington and said he loves the state. He has been with his current partner for 17 years.
"I visited out here for eight years every summer and winter. I knew what I was getting into with the winters being gray and rainy but I love that weather. It was a little long this year but I figured because this is my first winter here that it's nicer just to get it out of the way," he said.
Dr. Purnell looks forward to what the future holds for him in and outside of Highline.
"I'll continue to use all this experience and information to help my students stay in school," Dr. Purnell said. "I'll try and encourage people to believe in their self and I think my story helps people believe that they will overcome whatever it is they are going through."