Tomorrow’s scientists, scholars, lawyers, artists, educators, engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs joined former first lady Michelle Obama and a host of celebrities today at UCLA for the sixth College Signing Day. The annual event celebrates high school seniors and transfer students, especially those from low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college-going backgrounds, who have committed to pursuing higher education.
Referring to College Signing Day as one of her favorite days of the year, Obama, an alumna of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, lauded the graduates for their hard work, their commitment to themselves and for overcoming barriers that can prevent students from reaching their potential.
“I want you all to know, you are about to make the best investment you can possibly make,” said Obama, who sported a T-shirt from Compton College. “In order to be here today, you kept on reaching higher for yourselves and for your future. You told all those doubters that they’d better make room. That is what this is all about, making people make room for you where you belong.”
During her remarks to the nearly 10,000 enthusiastic students packed into Pauley Pavilion, Obama shared how when she was a high school student applying to college some people discouraged her from reaching too high.
“They told me that I wanted too much for myself, that I should dream a little smaller, and let me tell you that will happen to you again and again and again,” Obama said. “There will be people in your life who will tell you not to dream too big, because they’re haters and they don’t want any more for you than they think you deserve. So in those times you have to ask yourself whether you’re going to believe the haters or whether you’re going to believe the truth of your story.”
The event, organized by Reach Higher, the college access and success initiative launched by Obama during her time in the White House, also included more than a dozen celebrities, including Usher, Don Cheadle, Kelly Rowland and Conan O’Brien, as well as professional athletes from the NBA, WNBA and NFL. Each offered congratulations to the students as they take the next steps toward reaching their future goals — whether in college, trade school or the military — with many offering advice and words of encouragement.
Before Obama and many of the celebrities took the stage, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who was the first in his family to attend college, welcomed everyone.
“We are so honored to have the former first lady here,” Block said. “There are a lot of people rooting for you and a lot of people who will help you along the way.”
Also among those rooting for them was University of California President Janet Napolitano, who said the real value of getting a higher education lies in finding what you’re interested in and following your dreams.
Singer-songwriter John Legend spoke, in part, about graduating second in his high school class and attending the University of Pennsylvania. He said education is a subject that is close to his heart.
“I really care about increasing access to equity in education,” said Legend, a first-generation college student who grew up in Springfield, Ohio, as the son of a factory worker and a stay-at-home mom. “America can’t be the land of opportunity unless we make sure our young people, no matter where they come from, no matter how much money their parents make, we want to make sure they have a chance to get a quality education.”
He credits his teachers and counselors for helping him prepare for college, and credits the dedicated educators who help set students like himself on a path for success.
“I know from my own experience how important they can be,” Legend said. “They have the unique power to change students’ lives, help them discover their strengths, to unlock their imagination, and I had some incredible teachers and counselors who believed in me when I didn’t. Who helped me prepare for college when I didn’t have parents who knew how to prepare me.”
The high school and community college transfer students who cheered, yelled and clapped throughout the program came from throughout California. Thousands more participated in regional College Signing Day festivities that were held on the eight other University of California undergraduate campuses.
The messages imparted throughout the event resonated with the high school students in attendance, including Matthew Kashay, who was there with classmates from the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.
The graduating senior from LACES, who will soon be majoring in urban studies and planning at Cal State Northridge, said that he feels encouraged to remain steady and sure-footed when it comes to reaching his potential even in times when others may try to make him feel as though he doesn’t belong.
“Especially as students of color, that’s something we face a lot,” said Kashay, who will be the first in his family to attend college. “That’s why it’s important that we do find the willpower to push through and obtain the higher education that we all want.”
His classmate Lauren Brazile, who will be majoring in pre-cognitive sciences at UCLA beginning this fall, said she was fired up after watching Obama speak.
“Seeing Michelle give such a great speech about being in college and being black and just doing good things with your life was really inspiring.”