For the past several months, Dominique Combs has woken up every day and looked at her phone.

There she found a countdown, the weeks trickling to days, the days leading to this moment: graduation day.

“It always seemed so far away,” she said of her graduation. “Now it’s pure happiness. Honestly, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s crazy.”

Combs, who recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, became the first of 17 grandchildren in her family to graduate with a four-year degree.

But it wasn’t too long ago that the degree and the countdown clock seemed like an impossible task.

Without the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy (PBLA) at Regis University, which she began attending while in the fourth grade, she wouldn’t be here, she said.

“I couldn’t imagine where I’d be,” she added.

Founded in 1996 and led by former men’s basketball coach Lonnie Porter and Colorado basketball legend Chauncey Billups, the three-week program, free to all invited participants, is held each summer on Regis’ Northwest Denver Campus. It provides at-risk youth (ages 8 to 18) from the Denver area the skills to become leaders, combat negative peer pressure, graduate from high school and attend college.

Students who successfully complete seven years of the program and qualify for admission, are provided scholarships for tuition and fees to Regis University.

It was the program that put in motion the countdown on her phone.

“They drill it in your head,” she said. “We wouldn’t say the class of 2012, your high school graduating class. You would say class of 2016, your college graduating class.”

Combs, who graduated from Denver East High School in 2012, found the transition to college tough, but her PBLA experience and the friendships it forged kept her going.

“All the work Mr. Porter put into us, there was no way we could let him down,” she said.

After completing her clinical work at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center on the labor and delivery floor, Combs is eager to start her nursing career.

That voice that used to be Porter’s telling her to forget quitting because she has come too far, is now her own.

“You got this. I still tell myself that today,” she said. “It’s continuing that confidence. Now it’s me telling myself I can do this.”

Learn more about how the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy is putting future leaders’ dreams in reach.