The gold-colored medallion that hung around Earl Edwards' neck last night will be a constant reminder of where he's been and where he can go.
The Mount Hebron High School senior, who has compiled a grade point average of 3.9, plans to use his four-year Benjamin Banneker scholarship to attend the University of Maryland at College Park and study biology.
He wants ultimately to become a doctor and pursue a career in sports medicine.
Last night, young Edwards and 135 other black graduating seniors received the "medallion of achievement," decorated with a globe and a lamp, at the sixth annual "A Celebration of Excellence" sponsored by the county's Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP) held at Hammond High School in Kings Contrivance.
The award program recognizes the academic successes of black students, who are often portrayed negatively in the media and their accomplishments overlooked, organizers said.
This year's honorees, the largest number recognized by the BSAP, have received more than $2 million in scholarships and grants to various universities, including Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, said Gloria Washington, a BSAP facilitator.
Last year, the BSAP honored 116 students.
The graduating seniors plan college careers in science, business, mathematics, engineering and other fields of study, Ms. Washington said. Most have chosen to attend predominantly black colleges and universities.
"These young people are our gifts to the world," Ms. Washington said to last night's audience, which included parents, family, teachers, friends and visiting county fifth- and eighth-graders.
She told students that they should draw inspiration from Nelson Mandela, who, today in Pretoria, South Africa, is to be sworn in as his country's first black president.
"We are with the same history," Ms. Washington said.
"A man has risen and has been elevated from prisoner to president, and that's something to look at."
Also attending last night's event was Michael E. Hickey, Howard County superintendent of schools.
"I am happy and proud to be part of this recognition ceremony this evening," Dr. Hickey said, crediting the BSAP with having helped the students to excel.
"This program has made a difference with the school system and its proof is with the students here," the superintendent said.
BSAP was founded in 1986 in the county school system to help black students with academics and boost their self-esteem. BSAP provides mentors, role models and elders for the students.
Elders are older people in the community who share their wisdom and experiences with the students like tribal elders in Africa.
Ms. Washington applauded some of the students' choice of mathematics and the sciences as fields of study, two areas often viewed as difficult for black students.
"It's exciting to see this trend," she said.
Maya Thompson, 17, a senior at Oakland Mills High School, who was recognized last night for her 3.94 grade point average, has gotten a scholarship to the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science.
Ms. Thompson wants to become a pharmaceutical researcher.
"I just think it's great that African-American achievers are being recognized," she said. "A lot of times they get ignored and overlooked."