Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who was told by her high school counselor that she wasn’t Ivy League material but went on to Princeton and Harvard anyway, urged thousands of students to follow her lead on Wednesday during a high-energy appearance at UCLA.
It marked the first time that Obama chose to celebrate College Signing Day on the West Coast. She started the event in 2014 to encourage teenagers to pursue higher education, career training or military service after high school. A major focus is on students who are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.
The roar and cheers were deafening as she stepped onstage at Pauley Pavilion.
“Helloooo, Los Angeles!” Obama said after being introduced by late-night TV host Conan O’Brien. “We are here today for all of you. I want you all to know you personally are about to make the best investment that you can possibly make.”
Wearing a Compton College T-shirt to point out the importance of community colleges, she congratulated the 10,000 students in attendance for overcoming myriad hurdles. She warned that other people would try to bring them down, as her high school counselor had tried to do.
“In those times — because they will come up — you have to ask yourselves whether you’re gonna believe the haters or whether you’re gonna believe the own truth of your story,” she said. Bouncing back from failure, she added, is the mark of a true champion.
“You do not do this alone,” Obama said.
Participation in Obama’s annual May 1 College Signing Day has grown from a few dozen schools to more than 3,000 campuses in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, said Eric Waldo, executive director of Reach Higher. Last year, the event inspired 1.24 billion social media posts tagged #collegesigningday in just 24 hours.
The University of California — where 4 in 10 undergraduates are first-generation college students — contacted Reach Higher, Obama’s nonprofit, about a year ago to host the event, Waldo said. All nine undergraduate campuses celebrated, the first systemwide effort to do so, said Carolyn McMillan, UC editorial director. Campuses invited about 6,000 high school and community college students to visit, and hosted rallies, hip-hop performances, inspirational speakers, college resource fairs and free swag.
Reach Higher selected UCLA for the main event, in part, because the campus is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Waldo said. On Wednesday, nearly 50 celebrities took the stage to talk up college, including John Legend, Usher, Pentatonix and Bebe Rexha. LaLa Anthony and Lil Rel Howery served as emcees.
Students, wearing T-shirts lettered with their colleges of choice, mugged for pictures against a College Signing Day backdrop. One friend group held up signs of their future colleges: Harvard, Duke, Dartmouth, University of Chicago and UC Berkeley. UCLA volunteers — and Bruins mascots Joe and Josie — handed out UC banners and goodie bags stuffed with water bottles, T-shirts and snacks.
Some students traveled for hours to get there.
Victoria Soldana Sanchez came to UCLA from the Central Valley with about 60 other seniors from Dinuba High School. She will attend UC Davis, where she hopes to major in biology and possibly become an ophthalmologist or optometrist — an interest sparked by her own astigmatism and vision problems. She said her greatest inspiration has been her mother, an agricultural worker who picks seasonal crops — grapes, oranges, strawberries — although she went to secretarial school in her native Mexico.
Kayla Perez, an El Rancho High School senior who plans to attend UCLA, managed to earn a 4.2 GPA while working three jobs, serving as captain of her school’s Academic Decathlon team and being editor of her school newspaper. She said seeing Obama affirmed her own journey from high school to college.
“I feel as if all the hard work that I put toward my academics and activities is finally paying off,” Perez said.
Rising tuition and student debt loads have prompted some students to wonder whether college is worth it. But three-quarters of all jobs in the 21st century will require education or training beyond high school, according to Reach Higher.
And research has shown that college graduates earn more — as much as $1 million more over a lifetime — vote more and contribute more to charity than their less-educated peers, said Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA vice chancellor of enrollment management.
“A college education is not only a benefit to the individual, it’s also a benefit to society,” she said.
In her best-selling memoir, “Becoming,” Obama shared her own educational journey growing up in the south side of Chicago. Ambitious and bright from childhood, she skipped second grade. She tested into Chicago’s first magnet high school, Whitney Young, and woke up at 5 a.m. for a 90-minute commute on two city buses to get there in time. She got good grades, loved writing, built confidence and graduated in the top 10% of her class.
When her high school counselor told her she wasn’t right for Princeton, Obama fumed and then vowed: I’ll show you.
But attending the Ivy League university with mostly white men, many of them well-off, was startling, she wrote. She and other minorities became aware of their disadvantages for the first time — no SAT tutoring, for instance, or college-caliber teaching in high school. She had never seen a syllabus and suffered from impostor syndrome.
Ultimately, though, Obama held her own, graduated cum laude in sociology and went on to Harvard Law School.
Obama’s passion for education and personal understanding of the barriers faced in many underserved communities prompted her to launch Reach Higher to inspire all students to pursue education or career training beyond high school.
“She’s the school counselor in chief,” Waldo said.
On Wednesday, five students headed for universities, community colleges and the military joined Obama onstage and shared their dreams with the crowd — to save lives as a paramedic, to protect the country as a U.S. Marine, to inform and empower communities as a journalist, to help underserved students as an educator.
Sage Bennett, a senior at Antioch High School, jumped to his feet, let out a whoop and teared up when Obama appeared. Bennett, who is African American and gay, survived poverty, homelessness and bullying to excel in school with a 4.1 GPA. He will attend UC Berkeley this fall, receiving a full ride as a Berkeley Regents’ Scholar.
“Michelle Obama has been the person who showed me I can do this — that no matter where you come from, you can always alter where you’re going,” he said.