PHILADELPHIA - It took two years of non-stop studying for Lance Dunn to make it to this point.
After dropping out of a high school in the 11th grade, the 23-year old Philadelphia resident has passed the GED or high school equivalency test, is graduating and on his way to college.
"The key is to get up and do it, just get up and do it. Stay motivated and have that drive, that hunger to keep going," Dunn said.
Donning a royal blue cap and gown, Dunn joined 38 others during a June graduation ceremony at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, receiving their GEDs as family and friends cheered them on.
"I feel great; it's amazing to accomplish something like this," Dunn said.
Each year, nearly a thousand young people come through E3 (education, empowerment, and employment) community centers run by Philadelphia-based nonprofit JEV Human Services, where Director of Youth Engagement Tara Mullen says they receive help overcoming obstacles to completing their high school education and getting a job.
"Many (are) parenting, many involved in the juvenile justice system, many involved in the adult criminal justice system, a lot facing homelessness just any other number of barriers," Mullen said.
Obama's My Brother's Keeper
In a bid to break down some of the barriers, the nation's first African-American president launched My Brother's Keeper in 2014 to help narrow the opportunity gap for boys and young men of color, including through increasing high school graduation and employment rates.
Philadelphia was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt the My Brother's Keeper initiative, with nearly $90 million in private and public funding invested in programs like the nonprofit Philadelphia Youth Network, which in turn supports JEVS.
"I firmly believe that every child deserves the same chances that I had," President Barack Obama said in February of 2014 during the program's launch.
Flanked by young African-American and Hispanic boys and men in the White House East Room, Obama cited the facts.
"As a black student, you are far less likely than a white student to be able to read proficiently by the time you are in 4th grade," the president noted. "By the time you reach high school, you're far more likely to have been suspended or expelled.
My Brother's Keeper has received criticism from both sides. The conservative National Review has called the initiative "government-sponsored discrimination," while more liberal The Root, has said it is not enough.
But Center for American Progress' Melissa Boteach says that there is a high cost to not addressing the problems of disparity.
Poverty to Prosperity Program VP, she notes minorities, who are more susceptible to poverty and instability, will make up the majority of the U.S. labor force in the near future.
"When you don't address those racial inequity issues, it's not only a moral outrage, it's also economically shooting yourself in the foot for U.S. long-term competitiveness."
A path to success
Community College of Philadelphia's president, Dr. Donald "Guy" Generals, is more blunt when it comes to the need to intervene early on, particularly for those who have dropped out of school.
"If we don't find a way to catch them early and put them on a path towards something more productive, they are only going to be a burden in terms of the services they are going to need later on in their life," Generals said. "Their inability to find gainful employment and incarceration is way more costly than community college. So these programs are incredibly important."
Generals, who was the keynote speaker at JEVS' GED ceremony, recounted to graduates how he went from cleaning the floor of a chemical plant in his early 20's to getting a doctorate and now serving as the head of a community college with a 20,000 student enrollment.
"I see myself in them, as someone who is struggling to find an identity and a goal in life," Generals told VOA. "This experience in terms of education will be transformative for them. I do think they have recognized that they can achieve academically."
Anthony Simpson, 19, has seen the impact of the program firsthand. The high school dropout completed the GED program in just two months and credits JEVS with getting him into community college.
"They helped me stay consistent; they were there every morning. Mr. Jordan would sit in front of the class and wait for me to come in. They motivated me, because without them I would have given up."
He says he learned the importance of education when he realized he couldn't get a job without a high school diploma.
Simpson has a message for other young men who might be struggling with what path to take.
"Don't become a stereotype. Don't follow on a path just because you saw others do it. At the end of the day, you're going to be better off being a positive outlier than just following in the steps of someone else."