A group of young men at Howard Community College are giving new meaning to the Orwellian phrase, "Big Brother is watching you."
They are members of the community college's leadership program Howard PRIDE (Purpose, Respect, Initiative, Determination, Excellence), and their designated Big Brother is Steven Freeman, the program's assistant director.
To say they relish his watchful eye is an understatement.
What began as a pilot program three years ago offering math support to boost graduation rates among African-American males has become a resource and mentoring tool for any Howard Community College male of color. PRIDE offers such support as leadership seminars, peer mentoring, college tours and tutoring.
Though in its early stages, the program is already yielding success. On Tuesday, 10 students enrolled in the program received diplomas at HCC's commencement as the college was celebrating the largest graduating class in its history.
This year, the PRIDE program had 65 members, up from 50 last year. Next year it will have 100.
Freeman, who also serves as academic adviser for the college's men's basketball team, has become a magnet for counsel. He keeps a close eye on students' progress, and when he's not watching them, the students head to his office to talk. Conversations range from relationships to concerns at home to car problems.
"It's to the point where if someone sees my office empty for three minutes, they'll say, 'Wow, no one is in here,' " Freeman said. "It feels weird when I am in my office by myself now."
When the students can't get to Freeman's office, they send texts, sometimes simply letting him know of a good grade or other accomplishments.
"When something good happens," Freeman said, "they want to let me know right away."
"When I first came here and I met Steve, it was just his work ethic in general," said Mylan Ward, 21 of North Laurel, who earned his degree in broadcasting and communication and is slated to transfer to Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. "You can see he's really trying and pushing for us to succeed. And when I say 'us,' I mean minority males.
"Coming to Columbia, you really don't see that a lot. You see minority males complaining that there's nothing for them to do, or 'nobody's here to help me.' There's always some excuse. But coming here, I saw Steve pushing for us to succeed, and that gives us a father figure for a lot of us to look up to."
Being seen as that father figure led Freeman to consider retooling the program's efforts — or at least making sure the path to his door is always open.
"I realize that it started off as a leadership program with a focus in math," Freeman said. "It really turned into a family-oriented program, where the guys are coming in and talking to me like a big brother.
"For me, it's been handling the fact that they're really starting to open up about everything. The program really wasn't designed for that, but it's grown into something."
The Association of Community College Trustees awarded Howard Community College the 2013 Northeast Regional Equity Award for the Howard PRIDE program.
The program helped create several success stories for its members. PRIDE member Anthony Christian, 20, of Columbia was a gifted student at Wilde Lake High School, but said before arriving at the community college three years ago, he was prone to do just well enough to pass.
"I never really saw the importance of education," Christian said. "As I got involved at HCC, especially with the [PRIDE] program, it shifted me from the mindset of striving for satisfactory to wanting to excel and lead by example."
He said he and other students in the PRIDE program are now keeping tabs on one another, offering familial encouragement and support.
"If I don't stand up to my expectations, not only am I letting myself down, I'm letting others down," Christian said. "Being a leader is not always what's best just for yourself. It's doing what's best for others and bringing them up with you."
Christian graduated Tuesday with a business administration degree and said he plans to pursue international relations at a four-year school. He said he's been accepted into several schools, including University of Maryland, Baltimore County and American University.
Others in the program say they hope to attend four-year colleges — not only transferring HCC credits, but also taking advantage of HCC's reverse transfer, allows students to earn an associate's degree from the community college once they've completed an allotment of courses at the four-year school.
Kayode Ajenifuja, 19, of Beltsville said he attended Howard Community College mainly because of its basketball program. Because he knew virtually nothing about the school, he wasn't sociable from the outset.
"I would spend time in my car," Ajenifuja said. "But Steve would have lots of events, and there would always be someone sitting in his office, so I'd say, 'OK, I'm going to go do that, too.' Just being around, being involved."
Ajenifuja said he plans to play basketball at a four-year school and pursue a career in hospitality planning. He and other PRIDE students, he said, have taken part in mentoring at county public schools.
"Everybody [at the schools] is watching you, and I realize how much they pick up because I have two little sisters," Ajenifuja said. "I want to be a leader, so I have to watch how I carry myself."