Standing in the sea of college-bound seniors on the 4th Annual Destination College Signing Day, my new-Mom heart constricted a little. While I was in the press pool, my one-month old daughter, Moira, was at home asleep with her grandmother.
In the UTSA Convocation Center, Molly Cox of SA2020 and Russell Rush of Mix 96.1 led the students in chants and cheers while they waited for First Lady Michelle Obama to address the crowd and launch her Reach Higher initiative. Back at home Moira was practicing holding her head up.
But one day she would be one of these seniors. Hopeful, excited, and nervous, as they stand on the brink of adulthood.
They tell me it’s going to go fast. Right now, college is a fledgling savings account in Moira’s name. In 18 short years, it will be a car packed with dorm furnishing and a university ID card.
For many of the students in the room, college was a far more distant dream at one point. It wasn’t only time, but circumstances that stood between them and higher education.
When I met Alondra Ramirez at Signing Day, I knew right away that she understood what it meant to dream big. Ramirez moved with her family to San Antonio from Mexico, and set her sights high as she progressed through Warren High School.
“Since I was little, education was something I had set my heart on. But Harvard was a far off dream,” said Ramirez.
She worked hard and obviously did well. Knowing that if she didn’t at least try to get into her dream school, she’d forever wonder, Ramirez applied to Harvard. Her bold move paid off. She was wearing a Harvard University t-shirt, indicating that she was headed to Cambridge in the fall.
Ramirez’s story is the kind of story that inspired Destination College week. Throughout the week, college-focused events aimed to make higher education a universal goal. Signing Day celebrates those students who have made college a priority and encourages them to take that goal to the next level.
Various City Council members, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, and Mayor Julián Castro donned college t-shirts to celebrate the day, and the students sat with their future classmates in matching college t-shirts. While the UTSA band and cheerleaders performed, the pep-rally atmosphere was full of congratulations and challenges for the students.
“On behalf of the city of San Antonio, I want to say congratulations,” said Mayor Castro.
The mayor then told the story of his own journey to college, complete with low-fare, one-way plane tickets and lots of tears. He empathized with the apprehensions many students face.
I thought of leaving baby Moira behind in some far away city, alone on a huge university campus with tears welling in her eyes as we drive away (48-year-old Bekah is sobbing her eyes out in this scenario). For the first time I understood how hard it must be for parents to encourage their kids to follow their dreams. Just because it’s a dream, doesn’t make it easy.
That’s why students need to know that someone has their back. Someone is rooting for them.
When First Lady Obama took the stage, she spread her congratulations to the support systems represented by each college t-shirt.
“Each of you has your own story of how you made it to this day,” Obama said.
One such story is Rosio Alvarado, who earlier had been given the privilege of introducing the First Lady.
Ten years ago, Rosio Alvarado and her family immigrated to the United States. They found themselves in a tiny home, marginally adequate shelter from the Texas weather extremes. Alvarado fought her way from ESL classes into AP and dual-credit courses. Now a senior at McCollum High School, Alvarado is headed to UTSA in the fall.
“Her story is an immigrant story, an American story, and a San Antonio story,” Mayor Castro said as he introduced Alvarado.
“I will go to college. I will graduate. I will become a person who gives back to the country that has given so many opportunities to me,” Alvarado said from the podium, before handing it over to the First Lady.
It’s easy to take those opportunities for granted. Our Moira will grow up as I did, immersed in affirmation and accommodation. My parents bought me an M.I.T. sweatshirt when I was in fifth grade. I received grants and scholarships from local philanthropies. My grandparents helped me pay off my loans. None of these are incidental bonus material in my college story. Support is essential, whether it comes from family, teachers, volunteers, or counselors.
In her address, Obama praised those supporting roles.
“This day is for them too,” Obama said.
Obama then dared the students to ask themselves, “What’s next?” The question might be intimidating, she said, yet asking it is the only way to keep moving forward.
“You just raised the bar for yourself,” Obama said.
That’s the idea behind the First Lady’s latest initiative, launched at the Signing Day ceremony. Reach Higher (#ReachHigher) sets the target beyond high school graduation, and even beyond college enrollment. According to Reach Higher, the goal for students in the U. S. should be college completion and beyond. While this prospect seems ambitious, both Mayor Castro and the First Lady reassured students that they had what it takes to continue reaching.
“The same qualities that got me through high school would get me through Princeton and, later, through Harvard Law,” said Obama, sporting her Princeton t-shirt.
“You should have every reason to be confident that if you keep doing what you are doing, you will do well in college,” Mayor Castro said earlier in the program.
Keep doing what you are doing. That’s the key. Success starts early. So my little Moira, at home working on focusing her eyes and holding her head up, already is on a path. At some point she will assume sole responsibility for her trajectory. Until then her father and I are going to do everything we can to make sure that path leads to a bright future.
Reach Higher, as Mrs. Obama explained, is not just a call for students to graduate college. It’s a call for parents to read to their pre-schoolers. For cities to invest in educational facilities like Pre-K 4 SA. For foundations to give grants. Reach Higher is a mindset for the whole community, and it starts from day one.