More than 8,000 students get encouragement at star-studded College Signing Day

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to the crowd at College Signing Day at the Liacouras Center at Temple University on May 2. Pennsylvania is the worst state for college access based partly on high costs and the size of student debt.
UPDATED Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 5:30 p.m.

Dozens of celebrities, along with former first lady Michelle Obama, helped an ebullient crowd of more than 8,000 Philadelphia high school seniors celebrate getting accepted to college on Wednesday.

The massive Liacouras Center at Temple University was filled with school pride of various kinds — some students wore shirts touting their high schools, and others wore shirts representing the college or university where they were accepted.

Representatives from universities in the region were scattered throughout to welcome students and offer opportunities to learn more about a particular university. Several local mascots showed up to cheer the students on.

The crowd went wild as Obama walked onto the stage, smiling and waving as the students jumped out of their seats.

“There is nothing more important than your education,” Obama said. “It’s more important than celebrating the NBA draft. I’m sorry, but you are all the stars.

“The only reason I’m standing here today is because I was where you are.”

Obama shared how her high school counselor in Chicago told her she shouldn’t set her heights “too high” after looking at the list of colleges where the future first lady wanted to apply.

“There are always haters out there,” she said. “But you guys did what I did: You ignored the haters.”

Obama ended up attending Princeton. She described feeling overwhelmed by the privilege of so many of her classmates.

“[College] might feel a little scary — it certainly did for me,” she said. “Princeton felt intimidating. I thought: Well, maybe I’m not good enough. … If you are feeling that, I want you to know that it’s normal, because I certainly did.”

While Philadelphia’s college-going rate has been climbing steadily, only a small percentage of students persist to get a degree. The city’s high school graduates still drop out of college at alarming rates, according to a 2015 report from Drexel’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy.

“You will have to struggle, and that’s OK. … If you feel like you’re falling behind, you have to ask for help,” Obama said. “Don’t be too proud to get the help you need, and know that you are not struggling alone.”

The event was part of Reach Higher, Obama’s effort to increase enrollment in higher education. It is in its fifth year of organizing College Signing Day events around the country. The program has held nearly 2,000 of these events, and this year the celebrity-studded Philadelphia gathering was the national showcase.

The celebrities made their way through a series of press rooms and were eventually interviewed by students with PSTV —the School District’s news broadcast channel.

Khalid Abogourin, a student at Philadelphia Virtual Academy, interviewed Mike Jerrick of Good Day Philadelphia on Fox 29 about his own path from high school to broadcasting.

“Find something you’re passionate about and you’ll be successful,” Jerrick told Abogourin. “I was all over the map before I found journalism.”

Alongside professionals from the national press, students interviewed Bailee Madison, an 18-year-old actress.

“It’s so incredibly encouraging to be in a room with so many students committed to further education,” she said, before explaining that she was still figuring out the college process herself. After watching her friends go through the application process, she felt that students shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the particular university they attend.

“When that letter comes in the mail, it might feel like your life depends on it,” she said. “But the possibilities are limitless for you, no matter where you end up going.”

Questlove, a Philadelphian (and a graduate of the High School for the Creative & Performing Arts) who founded The Roots, the world-renowned hip-hop collaborative, gave a speech with a similar theme: It’s all about the experience you have, not the name of the university. And the learning happens both inside and outside the classroom.

“I challenge you to step outside your comfort zone,” he said. “Socialize and mix it up with people who don’t look like you.”

Nikkera Carty and Jada Peters said they were excited and relieved that the college application process was over, and are looking forward to starting school in the fall. Both will be nursing students — Carty at LaSalle University and Peters at Temple.

They had advice for other students, “Don’t procrastinate. Apply to colleges now!”

And while they said they were both excited that Michelle Obama came to Philadelphia “and made the time to talk to the students,” Carty wished that she would, “bring Barack out” on stage as well.

The event also featured brief speeches from Mayor Kenney, Superintendent William Hite, and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.

Student speaker Jasir Arms will be graduating from Kensington High School of Creative & Performing Arts and will attend Pennsylvania State University in the fall.

“I’m from the City of Brotherly Love, where the name doesn’t always match the reality,” Arms said. “After growing up in Philly, everything else is less difficult. We’re built to withstand anything that’s thrown at us.”

Arms was popular with the locally grown crowd.

“No matter where you’re going after high school,” he said. “It’s important to never forget the concrete from which you grew.”

The line was a reference to the poem by Tupac Shakur, The Rose That Grew From Concrete.

Michelle Obama’s speech closed the event — the moment they had all been waiting for.

“We need you all to be successful. … We love you so much, and we have such high hopes for you,” she said. “I know that you have everything it takes to succeed.”

Agung Putra and Abigail Brown, student reporters from the George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Sciences, contributed to this article.