When first lady Michelle Obama became a freshmen at Princeton University in New Jersey, the Chicago native couldn’t figure out what classes to take or which building they were in. She was overwhelmed and lonely.
But she took a few deep breaths and made a plan. Obama found an adviser, made lifelong friends at the university multicultural center, attended classes every day and studied as hard as she could.
“So here’s my message: If I can do it, man, so can you,” said Obama, whose parents didn’t go to college. “I am like you! There’s no magic here. I didn’t get here because I was rich or famous or had important people looking out for me. I got there because I worked hard. And if you got into college, you have everything you need to get through college.”
Obama shared her story Friday to 2,000 high school students from 40 Detroit schools at the city’s first College Signing Day.
The first lady chose to appear at Wayne State University in Detroit to encourage students to enroll and graduate from a higher education institution as part of her Reach Higher initiative — an effort launched last year to inspire young people to take charge of their future by pursuing and completing education past high school.
Her visit came as President Barack Obama has called for America to again attain the distinction of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. In 1990, the United States ranked No. 1 in the world in four-year degree attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds. But 25 years later, the nation ranks 12th.
Clad in a T-shirt from her alma matter, Mrs. Obama told the crowd that very few people get signed for professional sports teams, and higher education is the path to success.
She told the students they also need a plan, find some mentors, get involved on campus and land an internship.
Most important, she told the students to ask for help when they needed it.
“If you all do all this, you will succeed,” Obama said. “I know you will. You will get that degree. And with that degree you will have the key to building the life of your dreams. This is the answer.”
After she spoke, many said she inspired them.
Tamia Russell, an Osborn High School student who plans to go into the Army after graduation, said it was an honor for Obama to come to Detroit and support the Class of 2015.
“I loved how she related herself to us,” Russell said, “saying she was once in our shoes, and we can do it.”
Added Catera Walker, a Detroit Community High School student planning to attend Henry Ford Community College: “She was so inspiring. She knows people are trying. The best part? When she told us, ‘Don’t give up.’ “
This is an important issue in Detroit, which has one the lowest rates for college attendance in Michigan. Additionally, the state lags in graduation rates, with only about half of the 300,000 students who enroll in the 15 public universities graduating in six years. The national average is 59 percent.
Joining the first lady to fire up the crowd was Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan head football coach. He told the students he was proud that they had made the decision to go to college.
“But this is just the beginning,” Harbaugh said. “Find something you love, are passionate about and pursue it with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind!”
His two pieces of advice: “Onward! Have at it!”
Also joining Obama was Ciara, the Grammy-award-winning singer and education advocate. She told the students that being educated empowers people.
“Dreams are possible if we believe,” Ciara said. “Your dreams really start and end in you. Where you can go in life really starts with you.”
Besides Obama’s event in Detroit, 600 other College Signing Day events were held across the nation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attended an event in Washington, D.C., while Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro attended an event in Austin, Texas.
Students started arriving at Wayne State around 7 a.m. and were greeted by marching bands, music and tight security.
Many were clad in college T-shirts, as Obama asked them to wear.
JacQueline Fields — a senior at Pershing High School in Detroit who plans to go to Wayne County Community College — said it never a question about whether she would go to college after high school.
“You don’t get that far in life without an education,” said Fields, 18.
By Kim Kozlowski, The Detroit News
Contact Kim Kozlowski: KKozlowski@detroitnews.com