LeNyia Preston was a bored high school freshman when she realized she wanted classes that were more stimulating. So she enrolled at Howard Community College and began taking courses there as well.
By the time Preston graduated high school in 2014, she had also earned an associate's degree in bioinformatics, an emerging field that combines biology with computer science.
Still only 19, Preston will graduate from Towson University on Friday and then head to Hawaii to start work for a tech firm.
For some members of the Class of 2016, the road through college was winding. There were wunderkinds like Preston who breezed through her coursework eager to get out into the real world, and others, like Marissa Charlemagne, whose struggles with academic life sparked her interest in education reform.
Others braved life-threatening diseases but stayed focused on the future. Nontraditional students like Carrie Cleveland, 38, a married mother of three, returned to college to finally get that degree she didn't get years ago.
While marriage and motherhood pushed Cleveland into adulthood early, the transition couldn't have come soon enough for Preston. Community college immersed her in the adult world — and she loved it. She watched R-rated movies in college classes while she was still in ninth grade, and studied in Denmark and Ireland — which made the slower-paced classes and restrictive rules in high school all the more frustrating.
She concluded: "I don't want to be treated like a child with my education anymore."
Preston was home-schooled for a few months before enrolling at Towson, where she continued to study bioinformatics. Making friends was a top priority since she skipped much of that in high school.
"At Towson I felt like I met my forever friends," she said.
Some people have encouraged Preston to become a doctor or a lawyer, but she has an aversion to blood and doesn't think law is for her. Bioinformatics will allow her to combine her interest in medicine with her computer skills.
Preston describes herself as an "old soul" with "a young mind." She is looking forward to working on a master's degree in data science and business, which she will do online at the University of Maryland, University College.
Some people have wondered if the academic fast track has denied her traditional high school experiences such as attending her school prom, Preston said. "But I got so many different experiences, I don't feel like I missed anything."
A dropout returns
Carrie Cleveland has gotten a lot of life experience since she dropped out of college in 1997.
She enrolled at Rutgers University, but after three semesters decided college wasn't for her. So she got a job, married in 2004 and started a family soon after.
Cleveland and her husband moved to Crofton in 2006. She enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College but was still unsure what she wanted to do.
Then her second child, Vivian, was born with a congenital heart defect. During a medical evaluation Cleveland spoke with a hospital social worker. Their interaction was so positive that a thought flashed through Cleveland's mind: "I want that job."
On Thursday, after nine years balancing family responsibilities with work and classes, Cleveland will get her bachelor's degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She'll be starting graduate studies in social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore in the fall and doing field work with middle school children with emotional disabilities.
Her husband frequently travels for work, so friends shuttled her daughters to soccer and dance practice when she couldn't be there. Being an older student was awkward at times, but she said she's gotten encouragement from the younger students.
"Here I think of myself as a college dropout and this isn't my place to occupy," she said. "But mostly the students are great and have appreciated my experiences and contributions."
Cleveland plans to bring her daughters to the commencement ceremony so they'll be inspired to go to college, too.
"I was that kid that wasn't smart enough to be in college," she said. "It took me finding what my passion was to be able to excel."
After cancer, a new start
James Moy is just grateful to be graduating. His life could have taken a very different turn.
He started at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2011 taking classes in engineering and thought that might be his future career. But by Thanksgiving, he was suffering daily headaches, couldn't sleep and couldn't keep food down. A CAT scan showed a tumor in the pineal gland in his brain.
Moy withdrew from his classes that December to begin months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments — and tried to keep calm.
"I always find that the calmer you are, the more sensible decisions you make," he said.
He took time off from school to recover, and to re-evaluate.
"All my previous work from that semester was erased," said Moy, 22, of Silver Spring. "It was a fortunate thing, I think. It allowed me to reassess what direction I was taking in college. It gave me some kind of freedom to be able to see what other classes or things I could do, and how I could perform better."
Moy decided he wasn't into engineering. An adviser suggested geographic information systems.
"It became a passion," he said.
Moy went back to school and landed an internship at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He studied in Beijing and Shanghai, and completed an undergraduate thesis on Chinese urbanization.
Moy said returning to college was like starting over.
"It felt like I could do much better," he said. "I had more resolve to complete my undergraduate degree at the time. I resolved myself to study harder, to do the best I can even further."
Moy will graduate with his bachelor's degree in geographic information systems on Wednesday and return to College Park in the fall to work on a master's degree.
A focus on education reform
Fun is not how Marissa Charlemagne would describe her journey from a charter school in the Bronx to the campus of Goucher College.
"I just was not prepared for the academic rigor of collegiate life," she said. "Charter school pushes you toward college and to get out of the ghetto, but academically I did not do well. It was a very tough transition for me."
Although Charlemagne, 21, overcame her early struggles in college, the experience made her focused on reforming American public education.
While at Goucher, she founded a mentoring program at Barclay Elementary Middle School in Baltimore and was executive director of caucus affairs for the Roosevelt Institute in New York, a progressive think tank.
She graduates from Goucher on Friday with a degree in political science. Then she'll join Teach For America and hopes to work in Baltimore.
Charlemagne, who is black and Puerto Rican, said she's determined to promote reform so education is more equitable for students of different races and backgrounds.
She studied in Amman, Jordan, to become fluent in Arabic. She was able to see how people in different countries approach race but she said she felt alienated and had to overcome it.
"I felt excluded and alone a majority of my time there," she said. "I was one of two black people in my program. It made me be very self-reflective. It's a part of life and you need to move beyond that to become successful."
She produced a documentary that showed students of color on campus discussing their experiences and frustrations. She presented it to administrators in hopes of reform.
"The video allowed us to see that all students of color, we all experience different kinds of pain here," she said. "My goal is to ensure that students of color have opportunities so we can all be successful."
Hoping to be a model for others
Herman Brown had decent grades in high school in Salisbury, but his SAT scores were less than stellar.
He graduates from Morgan State University on Saturday with acceptances into five law schools.
Brown was conditionally accepted into Morgan through a program called the CASA Academy, in which students who don't meet Morgan's typical entry requirements must pass several introductory courses with a C the summer before freshman year to be fully accepted. Getting into the conditional program at all was a big day for Brown.
"It wasn't always that certain that I was going to college," said Brown, 22. "It was a really exciting day."
Brown breezed through the transition program with As and Bs. He decided to major in political science in his freshman year, and met two professors in the department, Max Hilaire and Michael Kamara, who helped inspire and challenge him academically.
"They saw something special in me that at the time I didn't see in myself," he said. "I had never been challenged academically in that way. They truly believed that after graduation I could go on to do something great."
Brown ended up with a 3.87 GPA and as president of Morgan's chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, a national political science honor society. He also interned at the Nimitz Library at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He said he was accepted into law schools at the University of Baltimore, Howard University, American University, Rutgers University and Villanova University. He chose the University of Baltimore, which gave him a full scholarship.
Brown isn't sure yet what type of law he wants to practice but he's interested in legal advocacy work.
"I want to be able to come back to my community and help people that don't have a voice and advocate for them," he said. "It'll give me a good opportunity to come back to communities like mine and be a model for the youth."
Now a job in finance
Jamahn Lee vividly remembers the day he found out he had cancer. He'd been getting headaches and vomiting for about a week. After a few blood tests, he was told he had leukemia. He was 15 years old. Lee was rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital by helicopter.
"I always heard of the word cancer but I never paid attention to it," said Lee, of Hanover, Pa. "My family was crying hysterically. I was in so much shock. It was the first time I saw my dad break down and cry."
He endured a barrage of cancer treatments during high school that made him lose his hair. By senior year, he had rebounded enough to attend his prom and rejoin the basketball team.
On Saturday, Lee, 21, will graduate from Loyola University Maryland with a degree in finance and a job in the Baltimore office of Stifel Financial Corp.
He picked Loyola for its proximity to Hopkins, where he would continue cancer treatments while in college.
Even with the cancer in remission, Lee was still taking a handful of pills daily and seeing doctors at Hopkins. All the while, he kept a calendar on his desk marking down the days until Aug. 25, 2013, when his treatment ended.
Lee landed an internship and scholarship from Baltimore money management company T. Rowe Price Group while at Loyola. He will be working on Stifel's equities research desk. He wants eventually to work at a hedge fund.
"Going through cancer taught me what motivates me," Lee said. "These past couple years of college, I can't look back and say I had a lot of fun. But that's because I've been so focused and wanting to make my family proud."