There’s nothing quite like walking around with former First Lady Michelle Obama when she’s meeting students for the first time. I’ve seen her stroll across a campus dorm quad at Howard University taking a tour with Chicago high school seniors. The roar of college kids pressed against the quad gate and the deafening shouts of “We LOVE YOU!” from the adjoining dorm rooms made think that this must have been what it was like to walk around with the Beatles.
I’ve also been in the room when Mrs. Obama has surprised a group of students on a White House tour—that high pitched yelp followed by clapping elation—the is-this-really-happening euphoria that often manifests in spontaneous outburst of tears that don’t stop, even after getting a hug.
And then there’s the reaction we got at College Signing Day. And no, not that college signing day. When Mrs. Obama is out there celebrating signing day every spring, it’s not about high school athletes telling us where they plan to play ball, but rather America’s high school seniors standing up and proudly proclaiming where they’ll be continuing to study after high school.
High school seniors do this every year on around May 1, the deadline by which seniors around the country have to let colleges know where they plan to attend.
Mrs. Obama launched her college access and completion initiative, Reach Higher, at a College Signing Day rally in San Antonio, Texas in 2014. Every year the entire city of San Antonio spends a week celebrating college-going—college fairs, parent nights, you name it—and finishes with a College Signing Day rally where the entire community comes out to celebrate the seniors. The whole community puts on their college gear or gear supporting the college choices of their neighbors, nephews and nieces. And during the city-wide rally, the seniors, in their college shirts, take a pledge to work hard and finish college. DJs, marching bands, step teams. It’s a fun time.
We knew that this was the type of community we wanted to lift up and we wanted everyone to get into that college-going spirit. In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we asked the entire Obama White House to wear their college gear and post pictures online to talk about how college changed their lives. #CollegeSigningDay was trending.
Every year since then we have called on more and more schools and communities to participate and host signing days. Last year we had over 1,200 events in all 50 states. And we are still going. You can go to bettermakeroom.org to register your event, download a signing day kit and even learn how to win $500 from the College Football Playoff Foundation and Donors Choose for your event.
When we pulled into the Harlem Armory in 2016 for Mrs. Obama’s College Signing Day rally in New York City, I’ll never forget how loud it was. We had dozens of celebrities like Common, Melissa McCarthy and even Robert Deniro talking to students about why education mattered. Every time someone took the stage the cheers from 5,000 students had me asking staffers who had just gone up.
So when Mrs. Obama closed out the event and took her moment at the podium in her Princeton t-shirt, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how wild the students went. I shouldn’t have been impressed by the screams and the waving and the mobile phones in the air trying to capture her as she strode the stage. It was just another magical day on the road with America’s School Counselor in Chief, Michelle Obama.