When Darrell Peoples was at River Hill High School, he said he called himself "an average Joe."
"I was a smart student, but I probably didn't apply myself as well as I could have," he said.
On Tuesday, Peoples graduated from Howard Community College. There has been nothing average about the last two years.
Peoples' thirst to better himself, his passion for inspiring and his drive to stop at nothing has changed his life. He graduated with a 3.7 grade point average and was awarded the Transfer Academic Excellence Scholarship from the University of Maryland, College Park, which will pay two years of tuition.
"The route I've taken is not geared for everyone," said Peoples. "It's about your temperament and personality and how willing you are to meet new people and seek new opportunities.
"I wanted to better myself academically and personally," he said. "I just wanted to do a complete lifestyle change because of the way I was in high school. I wasn't happy with it."
The graduation ceremony at Merriweather Post Pavilion was attended by nearly 450 students. According to the college, 1,197 students were eligible to graduate over the past year, the highest number in the school's history. The college also reported that over the past six years the number of graduates has grown by 86 percent, the highest growth rate among the 16 community colleges in Maryland.
HCC has had many success stories since it began classes in 1970, and Peoples started his right away. Shortly after graduating from River Hill, he took a summer course at the Columbia campus called First Year Experience.
"When I came to HCC I honestly had a goal in mind that I wanted to be very successful when it came to academics," said Peoples. "So when I came to class I sat in the front row, I was engaged in the teacher and I saw a different side of myself. I really applied myself. I think I finished with a 99.4 [out of 100].
"That was one of my first major successes academically, and that feeling I got really stuck with me throughout my two years here."
Peoples, who began at HCC taking developmental classes, hasn't stopped since he stepped on campus, enrolling in winter and summer classes during his two years. It was during his first winter semester that a classmate, who was going to meet his mentor, asked Peoples if he wanted to join him.
That was Peoples' introduction to Steven Freeman Jr., Associated Director of Howard P.R.I.D.E. (Purpose, Respect, Initiative, Determination, Excellence). The program, which offers resources, mentoring and encouragement to African American males, has doubled its growth since it began three years ago to 100 members.
Peoples said Howard P.R.I.D.E. was "the perfect place" to help him realize his goals by challenging him and giving him a stage to boost his confidence.
"Darrell came to the program and was someone that quietly watched others," said Freeman, who helped start the program. "He asked how he could become more involved and, after observing him, he was made into a Peer Leader. His strong academics and work ethic made him an excellent servant leader. He leads by example in the classroom as well as on campus."
His role as a mentor and leader has given Peoples the opportunity to befriend administrators and staff on campus and to improve his public speaking.
"Darrell has become more confident in his ability to speak in front of audiences of various sizes," Freeman said. "He has also become more personable and confident."
Peoples, who has maintained a part-time job for three years since he turned 16, plans to major in psychology at Maryland. He would like to return to Howard County and work as a high school counselor in the public school system.
That desire comes in part from his time as a senior at River Hill when he participated in the Gifted and Talented Mentorship Program and worked with counselor Debbie Finkelstein at Running Brook Elementary School.
"Children would come to her upset and they would leave feeling better about themselves," said Peoples. "That would be a wonderful feeling to come to my job and be able to help students that are going through something and being able to assist with that and help with their growth."
One aspect that has helped Peoples grow is his willingness to allow people to help him, and to learn from it.
"Darrell is one of the most self-driven people I know, using every angle possible to find the diamond in the rough with relation to both experiences and people motivating him to the next step without hesitation," said Jennifer McQueeney, the principal's secretary at River Hill who befriended Peoples.
While at River Hill, Peoples thought about attending the University of Maryland directly after high school. But he realized he wasn't ready, and his mother, Arlette, a CPA, suggested HCC.
"I never really thought I would be this successful at HCC with regard to academics, being involved and eventually earning my scholarship to College Park," said Peoples. "I believe this type of environment has really made a difference for me. There are people here that care about you."
Peoples clearly is motivated. So much so that he already has created an Instagram page for motivational sayings and hopes one day to start making motivational videos.
"Darrell is someone that likes to be challenged," said Freeman. "He is inspired by successful people. He is someone that you can depend on in a tough situation. He will not quit until he reaches his goal."
He's no average Joe.