NEW YORK (AP) – High school seniors on their way to college were feted by U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and a host of celebrities on Tuesday as she encouraged them to make the most of their college experiences, get involved in campus life and ask for help when they need it.
“We are so proud of everything you’ve achieved, and we don’t take the struggle for granted,” Obama told a roaring crowd of young people in attendance at an event in Harlem.
Obama was marking her third and last College Signing Day, part of the Reach Higher initiative she started to encourage young people to extend their educations past high school. The events were in Detroit and San Antonio the first two years.
Obama told the students the goal wasn’t just to get into college, but to get a degree.
“The minute you get to college this fall, I want you to get right back to work,” she said. “Today is not the end of your journey. It’s just the beginning.”
She recounted her experience starting at Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey, where she initially felt out of her depth as a first-generation college attendee until she reached out for support.
“I am no different from you all,” she said. “My parents didn’t have money. I went to public school. We didn’t have a whole lot of examples to follow. But I know that if I can do it, you can do it, too.”
The event brought out numerous celebrities, who wore T-shirts from their alma maters, spoke about their college experiences and congratulated the students. Among the speakers were Academy Award-winning “Raging Bull” actor Robert De Niro, “black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross and “Mike & Molly” star Melissa McCarthy.
New York’s public schools, which are not in session this week, are having their own signing day event on May 2.
The city Department of Education is trying to boost the number of students who attend and graduate from college through initiatives like starting college visits as early as middle school.
Alexandra Lu, an 18-year-old senior at Brooklyn Technical High School, said she will be a freshman at Stony Brook University in the fall. She said she was thrilled to be cheered on by such famous faces.
“They made it seem like it’s really exciting, so I was really excited, too,” she said.
Shaik Jaman, a 17-year-old who’ll be in the first generation of his family to go to college when he attends Hunter College this fall, said he was inspired by Obama’s words.
“It motivates me,” said Jaman, who also goes to Brooklyn Tech. “Maybe I can be just as great as her or even better.”