ORANGEBURG — Christen Cox painted the words “Hi Mom” on the top of her graduation cap.

“My mother made a lot of financial sacrifices so I could attend college,” said Cox, who Friday graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from South Carolina State University. “I want to make her proud. It’s one of the days I can make her love me even more,” the 22-year-old from Queens, N.Y., said.

Cox was one of more than 500 students awarded undergraduate and graduate degrees from South Carolina’s only public historically black university.

Corey Frasier, a 23-year-old from North Charleston, earned a degree in political science and pre-law. He is among the first generation in his family to attend college. “It’s a great feeling,” Frasier said. “It was a long stretch, but I have a good feeling inside.”

He also said it was important to him to attend a historically black college as an undergraduate. He wanted to learn more about his culture, he said. And the campus had a family feeling.

Frasier said he’s sad about having to say goodbye to everyone at S.C. State, but he’s leaving with “a networking system,” — friends and colleagues he can call on for life.

Actor Terrence Howard gave the commencement address to graduates this year. Howard is best known for his Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated work in the movie “Hustle & Flow,” as well as his supporting role in the film “Crash,” which received a National Board of Review Award for Best Breakthrough Performance.

Howard congratulated the graduates on making it through to this point. “You got here because you trusted the little piece of God inside you that reminds you you are worth something,” he said.

He also warned the graduates against wasting valuable time. A big challenge in life is avoiding “spending time trying to put petals back on a flower,” he said.

Janique Francis, 24, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, graduated with a sigh of relief.

Francis, who majored in political science, had a 4.0 grade-point average, never earning less than an “A” in any of her classes. As her college years rolled by, the pressure she felt about continuing her perfect academic record grew more intense. “Once you have it, you have to maintain it,” she said.

Francis plans to work at the Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C., this summer, and to begin graduate school in the fall of 2013. She eventually wants to work for a global, nonprofit organization.

But Friday, she was simply taking in the electrified campus atmosphere with her friends and fellow graduates. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m in a daze. I’m looking forward to life.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.