As a student in the first class of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, Tyler Beck found himself enveloped in a nurturing environment where teachers came in early and stayed late to help tutor struggling students. There, the boys formed a brotherhood and learned affirmations that kept them pumped up to achieve.
"We were taught, 'Each one reach one,' and 'It takes courage to excel.' We all learned to help each other because we all wanted to succeed," Beck said. "There were people who could say they'd been right where you were from and they could say they knew what your life was like."
But four years later, at the idyllic East Coast private college to which Beck was accepted, the atmosphere was dramatically different. And even though he had earned a full academic scholarship to attend, Beck was not prepared.
In the time since he became one of the celebrated 107 African-American men in that first graduating class of Urban Prep who were all accepted to college, Beck said he has had to battle stoic professors, academic hardship and unforgiving college administrators. He's faced financial predicaments and feelings of isolation, along with self-doubt and insecurities. He has journeyed from the pristine, gated campus of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., to his brother's couch in Madison, Wis., and then back to his gritty South Side neighborhood.
He ended up losing his scholarship and is now starting over with renewed focus at Lake Forest College, which is closer to home and his support network.
Urban Prep got him to college, he said. But the road to earning a degree has been more complicated than just collecting acceptance letters.
The struggle black men like Beck have endured is indicative of a wider problem, experts say. Studies show that not only do black men account for a small percentage of fall undergraduate enrollment at degree-granting colleges — less than 6 percent in 2012, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report — but most never finish.
Black men stumble in college typically because of a combination of financial, social and academic obstacles, experts say. They may need money to support their studies or families. They may struggle to fit in in the dramatically different environment. And they can become overwhelmed by the coursework. Because of notions of masculinity, they tend to not aggressively seek out help.
Long before they were handed their high school diplomas, the 2010 graduates of Urban Prep fulfilled the promise by the school's founder and CEO, Tim King, that they would all get accepted into college.
Although Urban Prep's alumni office keeps in close contact with the 2010 graduates, the school will not release figures detailing how many of the students enrolled in college, finished college or are still in school, saying it will do so in 2016. King said in an email that he was unavailable to comment for this story.
But interviews with several members of that first class reflect what research shows: It's not enough to get African-American men accepted into college. It takes grit, a strong support circle, outreach and programs that offer assistance before it is requested to help them navigate the rigors of college academic life.
"The college acceptance letters and getting black males into college is commendable," said Terrell Strayhorn, a professor of higher education at the Ohio State University and one of the authors of the book "Black Male Collegians: Increasing Access, Retention, and Persistence in Higher Education."
"But true success is college acceptance, matriculation and graduation. We know from research, those who finish college are more likely to occupy competitive jobs, they assume higher status occupations. Those that graduate are more likely to vote, volunteer their time to community service and have a successful marriage."
The reasons black men find it rough in college are numerous and systematic, Strayhorn said. Many start out disadvantaged by showing up from high schools that didn't offer Advanced Placement classes and from families without a college tradition. They may feel unwelcome on campuses where there are few cultural rituals they can relate to.
The stories of four young black men who graduated from the celebrated charter school offer a glimpse of those difficulties, but also a look at how perseverance and support led to success.
The campus of Northwestern University is only 25 miles from the South Shore neighborhood where Deontae Moore grew up. But the communities feel completely different, Moore said.
On the South Side, he learned how to avoid certain streets that were considered gang territories, and he knew to keep his eyes open and his head down. The sounds of sirens, gunshots and chaos often punctuated the night air.
From the time he was a sophomore at Urban Prep, Moore was fixated on attending the prestigious school in Evanston. He visited the campus over and over and participated in three summer enrichment programs to bolster his application. Several of his teachers and counselors at Urban Prep were Northwestern graduates, so he relied on them for advice, he said.
"I grew up in the projects. I was often around drugs and violence and negativity," Moore said. "My mother struggled to make ends meet, and I've seen her literally have no money to cover the electricity and we'd have to live with no lights.