38 FIVE YEARS AGO,I couldn’t even have imagined holding a college diploma in my hands, so I never imagined myself speaking at my grad- uation ceremony. Not at all. I’m from Homewood, where kids feel lucky to graduate from high school. The truth is that a lot of my neighbors drop out, end up in jail or get killed. Here today, gone tomorrow. Look — my parents created a loving home for me, but life was tough. My mom had me when she was 15. My dad died when I was in middle school. While he was alive, my dad was there for us, but he was in and out of jail. We lived on a street that was plagued with drugs and violence. The crime in the neighborhood was always close by. Our home was the target of gunfire at one point. The idea of college seemed like a television sitcom. My reality: The cost of a college education would outweigh the benefits. But if you asked my teachers, college was the obvious next step. I was the captain of the track team and vice president of student government. Grades were never a problem for me. But I guess I lost focus, because my grade point average fell below 2.5 early in my senior year. That really made me think, because I knew I needed a 2.5 to be eligible for the Promise scholarship. My self-imposed ultimatum: improve my grades. I had to increase my GPA or give up and end my education at high school. Something inside told me to improve my grades. My teachers and mentors pushed me to reach past my comfort zone and visit some schools. Eventually, I found myself heading toward a college education. The next summer, I started classes at Clarion University with my Promise scholarship backing me up. I still had to work during school, but without the scholarship, I don’t think I would have gone to school at all. The Clarion campus is quiet and rural. I was surprised that it felt like home, but it did — it felt right. But something feeling right and being easy are two different things. It’s a culture shock. I was assigned a peer mentor to ease the transition. I remember getting my first C in an English class. English was always my strongest subject! My mentor helped me through it. I think it was that mentoring experience that helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that had shaped me. Mentors and family members have been supporting me since elementary school. They were the thread stitching my successes together. Freshman year is a time when you reflect on who you are and who you want to be. I realized that I wanted to serve others. At the end of that year, I came up with an idea to create mentoring programs specifically for African American students. I worked with the Clarion Office of Minority Student Services to launch G.E.M.S. (Golden Eagle Men’s Success) and R.U.B.I.E.S. (Rise Up Beautiful Intellectual Exceptional Sisters). I didn’t think it would work, but the staff at the student services office believed in me. Today, these programs coordinate more than 100 students and mentors. One of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that more than 50 percent of the students who enter as mentees go on to become mentors themselves. Founding the mentoring program boosted my confidence more than any other experience because it showed me that I could ignite change. That’s part of why I majored in political science and criminal justice. I saw so many in my community get locked up and then continue to cycle in and out of the justice system. They didn’t have the support to overcome it. So, I’m especially interested in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. I know that it will be tough work to do, but change requires commitment. This fall, I will begin my graduate studies in criminal justice at the University of Baltimore. I guess that’s another thing I never thought I would do. On the day of my college graduation ceremony, it all hit me. My friends poked fun at me because I cried through the entire day. I cried during my commencement speech when talking about my parents. I’m the first male in my family to receive a college degree because of them. I cried watching the members of G.E.M.S. and R.U.B.I.E.S. cross the stage for their diplomas. During the speech that day, I encouraged my classmates to take their degree and do something positive with it. I’m determined to take my own advice. Torron Mollett ThePittsburghPromise 39 RE P ORT TO THE COM M UNI TY THE P I TTSBURGH F OUNDATI ON AstoldtoLaurenBachorski,directorofCommunicationsatThePittsburghPromise Mollett is pictured before the mural at the former Holy Rosary School, which now houses Homewood’s Community Empowerment Association. The mural honors importantAfricans and African Americans.