Michelle Obama celebrates college-bound students in Philadelphia — and gives advice for the next step
At the largest ever College Signing Day celebration, Michelle Obama and a star-studded cast cheered on Philadelphia students who are committed to attending degree programs following their high school graduation — and talked about how to navigate college once there.
Camila Cabello live performance? Check. Kelly Rowland, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Zendaya, Nick Cannon, Rebel Wilson, and other celebrities and influencers dancing together on stage? A rousing speech from Michelle Obama? Check and check.
Philadelphia’s College Signing Day, celebrated Wednesday at the Liacouras Center at Temple University, hosted area students as part of the Reach Higher Initiative to mark their acceptance into and commitment to attend college degree programs — and scored an A+ grade in celebrity attendance and participation. The largest yet in the five years that Michelle Obama has been spearheading the tradition, the Philadelphia event was one of more than 2,000 College Signing Day gatherings celebrated nationwide, counting the participation of more than 600,000 students.
Nearly 8,000 students filled the arena, sporting their college gear and applauding their favorite public figures as they soaked in the declarations of pride and support on the part of internationally renowned celebrities as well as local leaders and officials like Mayor Jim Kenney, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite, and Pennsylvania State Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.
But perhaps the most important message of the event came from former First Lady Michelle Obama, who reminded Philadelphia students entering college — especially those who are first-generation or are coming from low-income backgrounds — that after the glitter evaporates and the confetti settles, they will have to build their own support systems to work through the struggles that will inevitably arise in the course of their higher education careers.
After describing her own challenges to fit in and self-doubt when she went from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton University as the first in her family to attend college, Obama told the students that in entering higher education, “you will have some struggles, and that’s ok.”
“But when you hit those roadblocks, when you have trouble in that class, when you feel like you’re falling behind, you have to ask for help. No one gets through college on their own,” said Obama, as she urged students to “find your community, find your posse, never be isolated.”
“Don’t sit in your dorm, don’t sit at home alone. You’ve got to find a study group, you’ve got to join some clubs, you’ve got to find some teachers who will support you. Don’t be too proud to get the help you need and know that you are never struggling alone,” said Obama.
This focus on what happens after the fanfare subsides is an integral aspect of the College Signing Day tradition, said Eric Waldo, who as an advisor supported then-First Lady Obama in kick starting the Reach Higher Initiative when she was in the White House in 2014. Waldo now serves as executive director of the initiative that has transformed into Better Make Room, a national organization.
“No matter what, we want young people today to be focusing on making the college experience not just something that you’re proud of because you got in but because you’re going to finish and because you’re going to be ready for a career and ready to live all your dreams,” said Waldo.
Waldo explained that Better Make Room is focused on helping students navigate the college application process with the Up Next tool, which texts students reminders about deadlines and tips in applying to schools and can connect students with customized, personal support. The initiative also works to enhance support of school counselors, citing on their website the results of studies that show that “students who met with a school counselor to discuss financial aid or college” are more than three times as likely to actually complete their applications, and seven times more likely to apply for financial aid.
Makhi Peterson, a senior at Parkway Center City High School present at the celebration on Wednesday, said his school counselors played a key part in his path to college acceptances.
“My experience applying to college was very hard, as the year ended it got easier and easier. What helped me most in the process was my counselors. They helped me in the whole process,” said Preston, who plans to study electrical engineering at either West Chester or Shippensburg universities this fall.
The event itself gave some students the necessary motivation to ensure that they continue on their path to a degree.
“I really enjoyed it, all the celebrities, all the guests were so inspiring, and they really encouraged me, like no matter what you do, just always get your education,” said Precious Vazquez, a senior at a local charter high school who will be attending Kutztown University in the fall.
Waldo said that this kind of perseverance for students, especially for those for whom the college path is not a given, must be acknowledged and celebrated in order to increase the number of young people enrolling in schools.
“The idea that you’re seeing folks like Bradley Cooper or Robert De Niro, Zendaya, Sierra, countless other celebrities and influencers using their platform to talk about education is I think a testament to the fact that they understand that for young people that’s the best investment they can make,” said Waldo.
“When Mrs. Obama started the tradition of signing day, we said that college signing day should be as big as going to the Super Bowl, getting an NBA contract, getting your music deal — going to college, getting that education is something that we as a culture need to celebrate if we want young people to have the future and the dreams that they want to have,” he concluded.