First Lady Michelle Obama congratulates Isiah Guinyard, a D.C. student who graduated from college this spring and is going to work as a teacher. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Da’Quan Jones graduated this week from the District’s Roosevelt High School and is heading off to Hampton University, where he plans to study business management and theater arts.

In earning his high school diploma, Jones already has beaten the odds — just 38 percent of African American men graduate from high school on time in the District. Now, with the help of the D.C. College Access Program — an organization that has played a key role in boosting the number of D.C. students who go to and get through college — he is seeking to become the first man in his family to pursue higher education.

“I feel a responsibility as well as an opportunity,” Jones said. “For so long, my family members haven’t been going to college. I hope I can bring a change and start a trend.”

Jones and hundreds of other D.C. youths — some who graduated from high school this spring, others who graduated from college, and all of whom have benefited from the help of D.C. CAP — gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel Thursday evening to celebrate their successes.

First lady Michelle Obama, who is leading a national push for more low-income students to attend college, told the graduates that she and President Obama were proud of them. “You all are role models for young people across this country,” she told the crowd of more than 500 people. “Savor this moment!”

Jamila Lee, a D.C. high school graduate who went to college with help from the city's C.A.P. program, is now working as a sales coordinator at the Westin Georgetown hotel. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Obama encouraged the graduates to “never ever stop struggling . . . because the sheer act of struggle made you smarter.”

She encouraged them to “never, ever, listen to the doubters, no matter how convincing they might sound,” and said that “when you encounter those doubters, don’t get angry, don’t get anxious or insecure, get better. Work harder. Let your light shine so bright that it blindds the doubters. Success is always your best revenge.

Obama advised the graduates to invest in themselves. “By focusing on yourself, it ensures you can continue to give back. . . . That last point,” she said, “is not a suggestion; it is an obligation.”

Nationwide, low-income students are far less likely to finish college than their more-affluent peers. It’s a factor that contributes to the country’s widening income inequality and one that has received a growing amount of attention.

D.C. business leaders started D.C. CAP 15 years ago in an effort to do something about the low number of city students who were getting into and through higher education. Scant data available at the time suggested that about one in four D.C. high school graduates enrolled in college, and of those, only about 15 percent earned a degree.

“It’s much harder to get them out than it is to get them in,” said Argelia Rodriguez, D.C. CAP’s chief executive. “We had to design a program that didn’t just drop a student off freshman year but stayed with them.”

D.C. CAP put guidance counselors in every one of the city’s traditional and charter high schools to help students apply to schools and for scholarships. The organization raised and gave out millions of dollars for scholarships and sponsored college-orientation workshops for students and their parents. And it hired retention advisers to help students deal with everything from glitches in financial aid to campus culture shock and academic struggles — whatever a student needed to stay in college.

“I want to be super-honest with people. When the school district wasn’t doing its job, these folks stepped in to make sure that folks had a chance to go to college,” said D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. “They have been giants.”

Now close to two-thirds of D.C. students go to college, according to data tracked by D.C. CAP. Of those students, nearly 40 percent earn a four-year college degree within six years, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. The graduation rate still falls short of the national average of 59 percent, but it is an improvement.

“When we started D.C. CAP, we didn’t know how big the student response would be,” said Donald E. Graham, chairman of the organization’s board and former owner of The Washington Post. “But the minute they were informed it was possible, D.C. students stepped up and started attending and graduating at much higher rates.”

Among the students who have made it through college is Jamila Lee, a dancer who graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2009.

When she was wait-listed at a prestigious training program for the Alvin Ailey dance company, she decided to attend Temple University in Philadelphia, where she settled on studying for a career in hospitality management.

She got pregnant midway through school. “It was no excuse,” she said. “With that mind-set, you can just do what you have to do.”

Lee said her D.C. CAP counselors taught her how to make plans and implement them. She developed a strategy to care for a baby while finishing school and working part time, and she implemented it.

Now she is working as a sales coordinator at the Westin Georgetown hotel. Last month, she and her boyfriend — the father of her son — got engaged in Paris shortly after she graduated from Temple.

The graduation ceremony was a chance to show people that “we made this benchmark,” she said, including in that “we” her family, her teachers and her D.C. CAP support system. “We made it.”