When Michelle Obama was in high school in Chicago, a guidance counselor told her that some colleges she wanted to attend were “out of reach” and she shouldn’t bother applying.
But she didn’t listen and went on to graduate cum laude from Princeton University in 1985 and earned her law degree from Harvard Law School in 1988.
The former first lady wanted the high school students at the Liacouras Center on Wednesday for the fifth-annual College Signing Day to follow in her footsteps, and not listen to doubters.
The nearly 8,000 Philadelphia-area high school students in the audience were celebrated for choosing to pursue higher education or the military after graduation as a part of Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, which she began while she was in the White House in 2014.
At the beginning, there were only a few areas that participated in College Signing Day. Today, more than 2,000 schools signed up and more than 600,000 students from around the country have participated, said Reach Higher’s Executive Director Eric Waldo.
Obama stressed the importance of seeking help if students struggle financially or academically in college, and that they are never alone.
“When Barack and I stepped in the White House, it was a struggle,” Obama said to the crowd. “There were people who told us that we weren’t supposed to be in the White House, that we couldn’t handle the pressure, that we weren’t ready.”
The day was filled with a lineup of celebrities like Questlove, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Zendaya, Karlie Kloss, Rebel Wilson, Janelle Monáe and several Philadelphia athletes like former 76ers player Marc Jackson and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Singer Camila Cabello performed her hit song “Havana” and Jussie Smollett, an actor and singer, also performed.
The high school students, who are about to graduate and go off to college, were decked out in their prospective college’s T-shirts, danced and sang as celebrities came on the stage to speak and perform.
Temple President Richard Englert and Provost Joanne Epps briefly addressed the crowd of students along with Mayor Jim Kenney, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.
Temple President Richard Englert and Provost Joanne Epps addressing the students “One word of advice, persevere,” Epps said. “If you persevere, you will prevail.” pic.twitter.com/r7LftefrfA— Lindsay Bowen (@lindsay_bow) May 2, 2018
“We are so very proud of you all,” Hite said to the crowd. “We’re excited about what you will accomplish. Continue to make all of us proud as you go off to college, wherever that may be…continue to have the tenacity, resilience and perseverance.”
Many celebrity speakers spoke to the crowd of students about the importance of higher education.
“As you go forward to higher education or the military, you have the opportunity to change the world and to make it better,” De Niro said to the crowd. “We are dependent on you, you are the future.”
Host Nick Cannon, along with gamer Tyler Blevins, also known as “Ninja,” gave away four laptops to students in the crowd, as well as a $1,000 and $500 scholarship.
Tamir Harper, 18, is a senior at the Science Leadership Academy in Center City and a first-generation college student.
Obama invited him on stage, along with three other high school students. He’s attending American University in Washington, D.C., to study political science and secondary education in the fall.
Before the event, Harper told The Temple News that he planned on asking Obama for advice about being a first-generation college student and to thank her for her service.
“It’s a story that’s to be told, that so many students in the School District of Philadelphia pursue post-secondary opportunities, from trade schools to universities,” he said. “I want to thank [Obama] for doing her work and ask her to continue building it.”
Harper’s face lit up as Obama called his name at the end of the event to join her and a group of celebrities, including Cooper and De Niro, on stage for selfies and dancing.
Many students were excited just to see the former First Lady and other celebrities in person, like Kiara Pierce, 18, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School in Mayfair who will be a freshman at Temple next semester studying biochemistry.
“I was so excited to see all of the celebrities here, and I was so inspired by what Michelle Obama had to say,” Pierce said. “I loved everything about this event. I’m so happy to be here today.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King told The Temple News that the event was an opportunity for college students on Temple’s campus to help incoming high schools students.
“They may not feel comfortable that college is going to be a place that they’ll feel safe and supported and welcome,” he said. “College students reaching out to high school students or even middle school students to tell them about college…that can be powerfully important.”
“We need you all to be successful and to strive for the greatest heights that you can imagine for yourselves,” Obama said. “That’s why we’re all here today. We love you so much and we have such high hopes for you. I’m not one of those doubters, I know you have everything it takes to succeed.”