“I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving,” says former First Lady Michelle Obama in the first chapter of her New York Times bestselling memoir, Becoming. While Mrs. Obama was referring to the sound of music coming from her Aunt Robbie’s apartment, the sound of striving can be considered the soundtrack to the lives of many students in communities across the United States. Like the younger Michelle Robinson, these students are working hard and committed to achieving success for themselves and their communities.
In 2014, at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Mrs. Obama stood in front of a crowd of high school students to launch her newest initiative, Reach Higher. Joined by local officials and her staff, Mrs. Obama wore a Princeton t-shirt and told students, “signing days . . . are not just for all-American athletes, but they’re for all-Americans. Period.” Mrs. Obama was determined to show that recognizing the success of student athletes was important, but it was equally important to celebrate students who were going to college based on their academic success. She wanted to make College Signing Day a big deal for every student choosing to continue their education, whether they were going to a four-year college or university, completing a professional training program, attending a community college, or choosing to serve in the military.
In Reach Higher’s infancy, only a handful of schools and local community organizations participated in College Signing Day. However, over the next five years, Reach Higher would partner with more cities and organizations to develop campaigns such as Better Make Room and Up Next. These campaigns helped spread the word that getting an education is actually cool. Five years later, College Signing Day has grown into a movement with over 3,000 celebrations taking place in all 50 states.
This year, Mrs. Obama stood in front of a crowd of 10,000 high school students from all over California at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. For this year’s College Signing Day, Mrs. Obama was joined by dozens of A-list celebrities and instead of wearing a Princeton t-shirt to honor her alma mater, she gave a special nod to community colleges by wearing a Compton College sweatshirt.
During one portion of the day’s festivities, five high school seniors joined Mrs. Obama on stage to announce their post-secondary plans. Genesis Jackson from Inglewood, California, was one of the five high school seniors. Just as the younger Michelle Robinson traveled outside of her community in the Southside of Chicago to attend Whitney Young, Genesis currently travels outside of Inglewood to attend Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in Downtown Los Angeles. In the fall, she plans to attend UCLA to major in Dance and minor in African American studies. When she graduates from UCLA, she plans to work in her community to help youth discover their passion. In a conversation I had with Genesis, she credited her success not only to her own dedication and parents’ support, but also the Flourish Foundation and Versa-Style Dance Company: two groups that allowed her to participate in a dance intensive on UCLA’s campus. Through these programs, she gained mentors who worked with her one-on-one to complete her UCLA application.
As a first generation college student from South Los Angeles, Genesis’s story, much like my own, is the embodiment of Mrs. Obama’s vision when she launched Reach Higher five years ago. This vision is for young people, no matter where they come from, to have the opportunity to attend college and finish so that they can achieve success and give back to their communities.