Marching bands, a deejay and a slew of celebs joined Michelle Obama at College Signing Day, an annual event the former First Lady launched while in the White House to celebrate young people and their pursuit of higher education.
Upwards of 8,000 Philadelphia students, educators, parents, elected officials, corporate and community supporters took part in Wednesday’s program at Temple University, held inside The Liacouras Center, a 10,200-seat arena.
Most of the audience was comprised of high school seniors who plan to pursue higher education at a four-year college or university, community college, professional training program, or in the military. Dr. Parthenia Moore, principal at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, brought along a group of 80 students, many of them young women of color.
“It’s been an exciting day,” she told ESSENCE.
The star-studded event also drew a host of celebrities who touted the virtues of education and pursuing one’s dreams. Nick Cannon (a Howard University student) welcomed such stars as Zendaya, Kelly Rowland, Ciara, KeKe Palmer, Janelle Monae, Questlove and Anthony Mackie to the stage. Supermodel Karlie Kloss, Bradley Cooper, Rebel Wilson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Robert De Niro participated, as did Black pro athletes from the NFL, NBA, WNBA and beyond. Jussie Smollet and Camila Cabello were among the performers who sang and danced for the youthful crowd.
“We love you so much. We have such high hopes for you,” Obama told the students, who wildly cheered and held up phones to snap pics of her arrival. “I know you have everything it takes to succeed.”
Obama has often spoken publicly about her working-class upbringing on the South Side of Chicago and how her loving parents worked hard to provide their children opportunities. In her speech, she told the audience that back in high school it wasn’t a given that a Black girl with her background could attend college, especially top schools.
“My counselor told me don’t set my hopes too high,” recalled Obama, who went on to earn degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School and become an attorney. “There are always haters out there telling you what you can’t do.”
Obama launched the education-focused Reach Higher initiative in 2014 during the historic presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black commander in chief.
The wife and mother of two also made history as First Lady, a role in which she championed military families, healthy eating and youth causes. Her advocacy work also included the “Better Make Room” campaign, which elevates the stories of today’s high school and college students.
The event with Reach Higher was hosted in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, Temple University and CF Charities. Sponsors included the Jordan Brand — Michael Jordan’s charitable organization — Comcast, Sallie Mae and UNCF. Representatives from Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and The Wilt Chamberlain Memorial Fund were among those who offered scholarships and checks to select students and schools.
Obama has hosted College Signing Day events in San Antonio, Texas in 2014; Detroit in 2015; and New York City in 2016 and 2017.
In a video message to students taking part in signing events nationwide, she explained how college afforded her the opportunity to study subjects she was “passionate” about, meet different kinds of people and receive the education needed to “pursue a career as a lawyer, a nonprofit leader, a hospital executive and yes, eventually, as First Lady of the United States.”
“I know that your college degrees will do the same for all of you, setting you up to lead the life of your dreams and succeed in whatever you wish to do,” Obama said. “College will be hard work, but I know you all are ready. Trust me. You got this. And I’m going to be rooting for you every step of the way.”