Marcus Foster noticed something different about the Columbus State University students who visited Jordan High School his junior year.
The members of the Collegiate 100 always wore button-down shirts, nice jackets, sharp pants and clean shoes, he said.
So on Thursday, Foster showed up at the African American Male Initiative 2015 Graduation Celebration wearing a gray vest, white shirt, black tie and shoes that were nicely polished.
"Seeing them, the way they dressed and how they had character and showed respect and all that, it pretty much changed my life," said the 17-year-old, now a senior at Jordan. "They inspired me to dress for success and now I want to mentor other people."
Foster was one of about 61 high school students to graduate from the African American Male Initiative program Thursday night, surrounded by proud parents, college administrators and college mentors. The event was held at the Lumpkin Center and attracted about 75 people.
Eddie Obleton, the program's assistant director, said it was a blessing to see so many young black men involved in the program, and he hopes it makes a difference in their lives.
"We're all on this journey of life and we thought it not robbery to come out and help these young men reach their goals," he told the audience.
Johniqua Williams, director of the African American Male Initiative, said the program is designed to improve the recruitment, retention and graduation rates among black males at universities.
It is funded by the Georgia Board of Regents, which allocates funding to public institutions throughout the state for that purpose.
CSU is one of 11 institutions funded and has received the grant for three years in a row, raising a total of $100,000 for the university's black male retention programs.
The African American Male Initiative includes the Collegiate 100 program, which is the college version of the 100 Black Men of Columbus and an initiative for black males at high schools in the area.
The four high schools currently served by the program are Jordan, Carver, Spencer and Early College Academy.
Members of Collegiate 100 serve as mentors, encouraging the high school students to stay in school and pursue higher education. They also teach them how to tie a tie and dress professionally.
Later in the year, the high school students visited CSU to be college students for a day.
"Last year, we had about 33 males come from the high schools that we work with and enroll at in CSU," Williams said. "Our numbers kind of feed into the system. That's not our purpose, that's not our goal, but they see the young men here and they feel comfortable."
On Thursday, she asked people in the audience to post hashtags and photos from the event on social media to help dispel stereotypes about young black men.
"We're seeing a lot of negative images; we're seeing some things out in the media that we might want to address," she said. "One thing I and Dr. Obleton would like to do is put some positive things out there in the atmosphere about our young men."
Of the 61 youths graduating from the program, only about 23 were present to receive their certificates. Among them was Jarib Beazer, a senior at Carver. He joined the program when members of the Collegiate 100 visited his school last year. He learned of the organization's goals to improve educational opportunities for black men in the community and got on board.
"It has helped me in deciding what college I want to go to, what to look for in a college, and how to fund my education," said Beazer, who plans to go to Alabama A&M University or Georgia Southern to study civil engineering.
Gina Sheeks, vice president of CSU's student affairs, said the African American Male Initiative has existed in the state for 13 years.
Since its inception, the state has seen an over 80 percent increase in black men who have enrolled at colleges and a 90 percent increase in those who have graduated.
The Rev. Adrian Chester, a member of the 100 Black Men of Columbus and a pastor of Greater Beallwood Baptist Church, gave the keynote address, encouraging the graduates to "come alive" and reach their full potential.
"We sometimes have other people telling us what we should do and what we should become, only because we are not alive," he said.
"So as you are pinned today, as you go through this ceremony today, don't let it just be a time of recognition. But let it be a time of self-reflection and ask yourself, "Am I alive?"
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.