D’Andre Young spent years wondering if he’d ever attend college.
It crossed his mind constantly: While he was selling drugs in efforts to support his family, dropping out of high school, or serving time in jail.
His fate, in a way, seemed sealed, even if it wasn’t what he wanted. He needed money for his son. He needed to survive. Maybe life on the streets was the only viable option. Maybe college just couldn’t fit.
Or maybe it could — with the right help.
It took someone outside of Young’s family to set his life straight, he said. It took a mentor from College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit that helps young people many deem the least likely to succeed get an education.
Young, 23, of South Boston, sat in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury Tuesday night. He wore a cap and gown as speakers that included Governor Charlie Baker commended students such as Young for going back to school.
Young celebrated making it to college along with 53 others who have stories similar to his.
Many left high school without diplomas, got mixed up with gangs and were in and out of jail. Now, they’re on the path to get degrees.
“College Bound saved my life,” Young said. “Honestly, I don’t know where I would be right now if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing.”
Young started classes at Bunker Hill Community College in January.
Tuesday’s ceremony lauded students who passed the HiSET, a high school equivalency test. Most of those students are set to start college this fall, or have already started, like Young did in the spring. Students who aren’t in bridge-to-college classes at College Bound will attend schools such as Bunker Hill, Roxbury Community College, and Northeastern University.
And none of them would have been able to make it to higher education without “grit,” Baker told the students clad in blue and white gowns during his keynote address.
“I can’t imagine how much grit it takes to put up with all the nonsense of life, climb over it, and put yourself back on a path where the reward is down the hall and not right in front of you,” he said.
He commended the students on their courage to start school again after many had taken several-year breaks in their education.
In the last three years, 126 students have enrolled in college with the help of the nonprofit, said its chief executive officer Mark Culliton. The organization, which was created from the decades-old Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses nonprofit, launched with the College Bound name in 2010. It’s based in Bowdoin-Geneva, an area with historically high crime rates, violence, and poverty.
Culliton’s group targets leaders in crime, and he hopes that if he can help those young people choose education, others will follow. He wants to make Dorchester youth graduating from college a norm, rather than an exception.
Toward that end, College Bound helps about 500 students, targeting ages 14 to 27, he said. Most will eventually complete the classes and go on to a college.
According to John Smith-St. Cyere, one of the organization’s college readiness advisers, those students are working to set an example for their community.
“It may not seem like it because every other weekend you hear about a shooting,” he said, “but beneath it all, there are students who are changing and trying to make a difference.”
Smith-St. Cyere, 29, of Dorchester, is a product of the program himself. As Smith-St. Cyere works on a social psychology degree at Southern New Hampshire University, he, as an adviser, helps those just starting college.
He ensures students’ financial aid paperwork is completed and that they have transportation to school.
He’s been in their place. He’s been in jail. He’s messed up along the way and ensures that students know College Bound will help them even if they get off course.
“We don’t quit,” Smith-St. Cyere said.
Georgine Moore of Dorchester is thankful the program never quit on her grandson, James Nelson Jr., 22. As he went up to get his certificate Tuesday, she sobbed.
She was thankful he went back to school, has a future, and did not die in the streets running with the wrong crowd.
Nelson said he hopes to attend Roxbury Community College and may study sports management.
Young, the student from South Boston, aspires to be a Boston high school guidance counselor.
“I want to be the person for students I didn’t have,” he said.
He hopes his children — his son, 6, and his daughter, just two weeks old — will learn from his example and attend college, too.