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Before Jamal Tate decided to be a college student, he took a diversion. He went to jail once. Then again. And finally, a third time.

“We had everybody praying—my coworkers, family members, friends, even people at the jail,” said his mother Erica Swinney, who raised Tate as a single parent. “Maybe a month after he was in jail the last time, he started talking differently. He had a more conscious awareness of black people in general and the state we are in and the choices he had made to get him where he was. I started thinking maybe he’s finally getting it.”

And he was.

“When I was in jail, I thought it was a waste of time to just do nothing. I started loving to do school work because I felt mentally bored,” said Tate, 19 and now a student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., where he has a 3.75 GPA.

On the day of this interview, he and his mother are on their way home from church and Tate’s troubled past seems like another lifetime.

The problems began when the two moved to Charlotte from Las Vegas, where they had lived more than half his life. His new neighborhood was a little rougher than what he was used to. He wanted to fit in, so he changed in an attempt to make friends.

“The new neighborhood wasn’t the best or the worst neighborhood,” said Swinney, who works in customer service for U.S. Airways. “It was a lot of kids in a lot of apartments.”

It was the perfect storm: A new environment, mom working evenings and weekends; less of a support system and a boy who was 15 years old.

“I started experimenting with various drugs, hanging out in the ‘hood with a different crowd of people,” said Tate.

“He stayed out late or overnight. He even tried to smoke weed in our household,” Swinney said.

Tate said he experimented with various drugs and sold weed. His grades fell. His behavior ruptured the bond he had with his mother.

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