North Philadelphia felt a little like West Hollywood Wednesday, as stars of every stripe converged at Temple University to celebrate Philly students headed toward higher ed and urge them toward finishing high school.
Dubbed “College Signing Day,” the annual celebration includes events across the country and a main celebration. This year, the big show was in Philly, which meant it included a buffet of celebrities served up for a screeching crowd of high school seniors.
The headliner was former first lady Michelle Obama, who helped start the initiative in 2014 and continues to chair the nonprofit that organizes the festivities. She was joined by entertainer Nick Cannon, actor Robert De Niro, singer Janelle Monae, NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, and a list of fellow celebrities too long and eclectic to include here.
In a morning full of delirium, Obama drew the loudest cheers. She told students her own tale of growing up in Chicago, overcoming doubters, and completing her undergraduate degree at Princeton.
“There are always haters out there telling you what you can’t do,” she told the students, most of whom came from charter and public schools in Philadelphia.
“You guys ignored the haters,” she added.
The vast majority of students in Philadelphia’s public schools come from low-income families, and many are the first in their families to attend college. Obama and several of the other speakers referenced their own modest upbringings — and the challenges they had to surmount on the way to earning a degree.
“I know that you are me,” Obama told the students. “And if I can be standing here as your forever first lady then you can do anything you put your mind to.”
The event’s over-the-top, carnival atmosphere, Obama said, is by design. It’s modeled after the press conferences and rallies that traditionally accompany sports stars signing with top college or pro teams.
“We decided we needed to make going to college and getting an education as big a deal as getting a contract,” Obama said.
The hope is that these type of headline-grabbing occasions — coupled with persistent messaging by parents, teachers and counselors — will ensure all students believe college attendance and completion are realistic options.
In Philadelphia’s public schools, about two-thirds of high school students graduate on time. Among the city’s 6,600 seniors, a little over half matriculate to some form of higher education within a year of leaving high school.
One of Superintendent William Hite’s anchor goals is for 100 percent of students to graduate and be ready for college or a career. The district paid Temple University $50,000 to rent its main basketball venue, the Liacouras Center, for Wednesday’s festivities.
The hope is to popularize and eventually normalize college attendance, so that more Philly students feel like West Philadelphia High School senior Aibree Knight.
“I mean, I never really decided [to go to college], it was more so built-in,” said Knight, who plans to attend East Stroudsburg University. “As you grow up in the system, they kind of install it in your mind to go to college.”