Kennard Rhodan, a student at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, hopes to complete his associate's degree in May and go on to study architecture at a four-year university.
He credits a program aimed at improving graduation rates for black males with helping him earn the grades to meet his goal.
"It's helped me stay off the streets," Rhodan said. "I have to study. ... The program is very helpful. If I need anything -- a tutor, to print off a paper, help revising a paper -- I know I can get help."
TCL received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education last year to improve recruitment and retention of black male students through a two-year pilot program called PILAU -- Promoting Integrity, Leadership, Academics and cultural Understanding. The program is named for the Lowcountry rice dish unique to Gullah culture.
The money provides tutors, counselors, cultural education and loaned laptops. The college began using the program in January.
About 35 of the program's more than 130 participants came together Thursday over pizza and soda to celebrate the start of the academic year with school faculty and other members of the community.
"PILAU provides a resource for African-American males to get their questions answered," program manager Michael Burgess said, "questions that can make or break your retention in this college."
Across the nation, graduation rates for black students have lagged behind those of other races. Black men are further behind than black women, Burgess said.
About 9 percent of TCL's 2,100 students last spring were black men, said spokeswomen Leigh Copeland. TCL staff could not immediately provide its current graduation rate for black males.
Program volunteer Carrie Amankwah will mentor participants at the school's Bluffton campus this year. She said she grew up in a family that relied on welfare assistance.
She became the only child in her family to graduate from college, and went on to become a senior human resources director for an aerospace company before retiring to Sun City Hilton Head, she said.
"I think young people need to hear from people like me who came up from meager beginnings," she said. "... To hear, 'This is the deal. This is what worked for me.'"
Marcus Ryans, who started computer science classes at TCL this year, agreed, saying students need a mentor who believes they can succeed.
"Coming from some communities, kids might be emotionally damaged and need guidance from somebody," he said. "They need to know they can (succeed)."