BALTIMORE -- Embracing education will empower students to define their future, Army and Morgan State University leaders told students March 17.

The speakers interspersed advice with personal anecdotes as they spoke to about 500 local middle-school students on the MSU campus.

"Make those hard decisions and accept those challenges," said Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, Aberdeen Proving Ground senior commander. "Every time you back away from a challenge, you need to ask yourself a question -- what roadblock does that put in front of me for the future. And then take the challenge."

The remarks kicked off the Maryland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, a three-day event that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education in the Baltimore area.

Willie D. Larkin, executive assistant to the MSU president, shared his story of overcoming adversity and poverty to find success as an educator.

"My first semester at Tuskegee University, I earned a 1.46 GPA. I was put on probation. The only thing that really snapped me out of that poor performance -- I went back home where I grew up on a sharecropper farm," Larkin said. "My father took me on the back porch and he showed me that expansive amount of land. He said, 'Next year, we're going to plant a whole lot of cotton out here. I'm giving you one more semester to go back to Tuskegee and prove yourself, or you'll be right here on this farm with the rest of us.' "

"The notion of me being on the farm for the rest of my life didn't appeal to me. I went back to school and perseverance kicked in. The second semester, I had a 3.7 [GPA]. It proved that I wasn't dumb; it just meant that I was misusing my time," Larkin said.

Carl White, associate dean of the MSU School of Engineering, encouraged students to take full advantage of the exhibits at the technology expo.

"I want you to get out there in that gym. I want you to explore. I want you to be excited and poke, prod, ask and investigate," White said. "That's what engineering, math, science and technology is all about."