Remarks by the First Lady at San Antonio Signing Day Reach Higher Event
University of Texas, San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas
12:39 P.M. CDT
MRS. OBAMA: Hey! (Applause.) Hello, everybody! (Applause.) Let me tell you, I am thrilled to be here today -- and not just because I get to wear a T-shirt, because I never get to wear a T-shirt to work. I’m here because this is such an incredible event. It really is. This is amazing. You all are showing that signing days like these are not just for all-American athletes, but they’re for all-Americans. Period.
So I want to just give a big shout-out to San Antonio, Texas for the great work that they’re doing. You all should be very proud of yourselves. (Applause.) Yes!
But, before we begin, I just want to take a few moments to thank a few people -- your tremendous mayor, Mayor Castro -- (applause) -- yes, as well as his very cool brother, Congressman Castro -- (applause) -- and all of the elected officials, all the school administrators, all the university presidents who are here, and of course, all of the parents. Let’s hear it for the parents; there are a few here. (Applause.) Thank you for being here today. Thank you all for everything you do for these young people.
I also want to thank the University of Texas-San Antonio for hosting us here today. (Applause.)
And finally, I have to thank Rocio for that very, very kind introduction and for sharing her story. (Applause.) She is pretty amazing, and I know she represents all of you so well. And really, her story of grit and determination and commitment to education –- that’s what we’re celebrating today.
Each of you has your own story of how you made it to this day –- a story that includes a lot of other folks who were there with you along the way. Maybe you were raised by a single mom who worked two jobs to put food on the table. Well, this day is for her, right? (Applause.) Maybe a teacher or a counselor encouraged you to apply to that stretch school, or to do more than you thought you could do. Well, this day is for them. (Applause.)
Maybe your family was like Rocio’s and you came to this country just a few years ago to give you a chance at a better life. Well, this day is the day you all can celebrate another step toward achieving your American Dream. (Applause.) Or maybe, like me, along the way, somebody told you you would never make it to this day; that you simply weren’t college material. Well, this day is for the doubters and the haters, too. (Applause.) It’s the day that they see how wrong they were. This is their day, too.
But most of all, this day is for you. It’s for all those years of hard work you all put in, right? All those late nights and tough classes, right? All those obstacles that you fought your way through because no matter what, you were determined to go to college -- and you did it. You made it, and you should be so proud of yourselves. Because I am so proud of you. So let’s just take a moment to give yourselves a round of applause. To the San Antonio class of 2014! (Applause.) We are all so proud of you. We’re so proud!
And I am honored to be here. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but here with you. (Applause.) This is a big day. And while my main reason to come here was to celebrate with you all, I also want to talk to you about another big day that is on the horizon for you, and that is the day you graduate from college. That’s right. (Applause.)
You see, what I’ve learned is that reaching a milestone like this means that you’ve just raised the bar for yourself, all right? It gets higher. Because just getting into college isn’t the ultimate goal. You have got to stay focused once you get there, and you’ve got to get that degree or that certificate. And you’ve got to be thinking every step of the way, what comes next? Start thinking like that.
That’s something that I learned from my parents. My family didn’t have much money. My parents were working-class folks. But they always taught me that going to college was the expectation. There was no other choice.
So I focused my entire high school career not just on getting a high school diploma, but on getting into Princeton. And I knew I needed to have a clear plan to reach my goal, and I knew that it was my responsibility to execute that plan. It was my job. So, like many of you, I worked hard in high school. I made sure that I took the right classes. I studied 24/7. And I agonized over those college essays. I know you all are done that -- happy that’s done, right?
And by the time senior year rolled around and I finally got that acceptance letter, I actually ended up feeling more relieved than excited. I mean, I definitely celebrated that important achievement, but I quickly got my mind ready for my next goal. I was already thinking about what I needed to do. I knew I needed to be as focused about getting my college degree as I was about getting my high school diploma.
So I started developing my plan to get through college. What courses should I be taking? How hard would I need to study to get the grades that I needed? What would I need to do to get into graduate school? What kind of career did I want? Those were just some of the questions that were rolling through my head.
And today, I hope that all of you are starting to ask yourselves some of those questions. I hope you’re asking, what am I going to do this summer to prepare for my first semester in college? What do I want my major to be? How am I going to pay tuition year after year? Should I get a part-time job or not? What’s my plan to pay off my college loans when I’m done?
And if those questions feel a little scary, that’s okay. That’s actually a good thing, because let me tell you, getting through college requires persistence and focus and determination. And there are going to be times when you feel like you’re going to fail. And that definitely happened to me. I thought I had done everything I could to prepare myself for Princeton, but when I got there, I was totally overwhelmed. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know how to pick my classes -- I didn’t even bring the right size sheets for my bed. It was pretty pathetic.
But, step by step, I developed my plan, and I got better and better at executing it. And eventually, I found my way. I went to the student multicultural center, started making new friends. I reached out to an advisor who would answer any questions that I had. And I studied as hard as I could to get the grades that I wanted.
And soon enough, I realized that I had everything I needed to handle college. I knew how to work hard -- so do you. I knew how to battle through adversity -- so do you. I knew how to ask for help when I needed it. What I learned was that the same qualities that got me through high school would be the same qualities that would get me through Princeton, and later, through Harvard Law School.
So I want you all to understand that those moments when you’re feeling anxious or insecure, those moments when you’re not sure you can reach that next level -- those are the moments when you shape yourself into who you want to be. That’s actually proven by science and research that shows that when you think hard about something or you struggle to solve a problem -- whether it’s math or science, or a problem in life -- your brain is actually growing. You’re actually becoming smarter because of that struggle. So embrace it. Relish those moments. Those are the moments when you’ve got to tell yourself to reach higher.
And that’s really my message to all of you today. You have come so far, you’ve climbed so high to get here, but you have got to keep reaching higher. And that’s a message that I’ve been delivering not just to you guys here but to young people all across this country. Because while we adults have to do our part to give you the support you need -- like building the best schools, and training the best teachers in the world -- really, at the end of the day, the most important person in your education is you.
See, you decide whether you show up for class. You decide how many hours you put in that library. You decide whether or not you’re going to ask for help or you’re going to quit -- that’s on you. That’s what I’ve been speaking about with young people over these past few months. And today, I’m also here because I’m proud to announce that I’m giving this effort that we’re going to embark on a name and an aspiration.
We are calling it what? Reach Higher. Makes sense -- Reach Higher. (Applause.) Reach Higher is my new initiative, and it’s about inspiring every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school -- whether at a professional training program, or a community college, or a four-year university or college. Because while it’s good news that high school graduation rates have climbed to their highest levels ever in this country, we also know that in today’s world, a high school degree simply isn’t enough. To get a good job, to compete, you have got to reach higher.
The fact is, a generation ago our country had the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. But today, we have dropped all the way to 12th. And that’s unacceptable. That’s not who we are. And all of you have a role to play to help get us get back on top, because the education you get today won’t just help you compete; it’s going to help our entire country compete in a global economy.
So with this initiative, we’re going to make sure that every student in this country understands what they need to do to complete their education and take their place on that world roster. We’re going to be focusing on things like financial aid, summer learning opportunities that get you where you need to be, getting kids off of high schools and onto college campuses for visits, exposing them to different careers, and supporting high school counselors so that they can keep on helping more kids like you get into college. (Applause.)
And we’re kicking everything off today -- this is the kick off, today -- by spreading the spirit of this signing day all across America. (Applause.) So what we’ve done is that we’ve asked everyone to take a picture in their college T-shirt, or in their colors, their hat -- we want them to Instagram it, Facebook it, or tweet it with the hashtag #ReachHigher.
And we’ve got everybody doing this. At the White House, everybody is wearing their high school gear -- or their college gear. The President is wearing his colors. (Applause.) The Vice President and Dr. Biden. (Applause.) So we want Americans all across the country to join in, as well.
So this is a call not just to the young people in America, but to everyone in this country to help with this goal. We need everybody to reach higher for our young people. We need more parents reading to their kids at an early age. We need more businesses offering jobs and internships for young people like all of you. We need more foundations offering college scholarships. (Applause.) And we need more communities doing what you all are doing right here in San Antonio, like building new preschools -- you’re doing that here -- like recruiting volunteers to help students fill out their financial aid forms -- you all are doing that here in San Antonio -- and hosting career fairs, and college summit days, and signing days just like this one.
San Antonio, you all are what Reach Higher is all about –- a community coming together to lift up its young people so they can fulfill every last bit of their potential. And we’re seeing more and more communities -- from California to Iowa to Philadelphia -– they’re coming up with creative new ways to encourage their students to complete their education past high school as well.
And while we’ve still got a lot of work to do to spread this message all across the country, we know that in the end, a big part of this effort is in your hands as young people. It’s up to all of you to hold up your end of the bargain.
So no matter what life throws your way –- because it has, and will continue to mess with you. Life is a trip. But no matter what, whether that’s a tough class, financial difficulties, or something else –- it’s going to keep coming, but you have got to stay focused on that horizon for yourself. You have got to keep your heart in the game every single day. You have got to commit yourselves to your future and to your education. Can you do that? (Applause.) You guys ready for that challenge? I think that you are.
But I think now is a good time that we go into that college commitment pledge, right? You all know what I’m talking about. I know you all have been practicing this pledge, and we are going to do it together. Are you all ready? (Applause.)
All right, here’s what I want all my high school college-bound graduates to do: I want you to raise your right hands. Stand up straight. Stomachs in, backs straight, chin -- head proud. And repeat after me:
I believe in my future and myself. (Students repeat.)
I commit to enroll in college. (Students repeat.)
I commit to persevere when I get there. (Students repeat.)
I commit to graduate. (Students repeat.)
And no matter what, I commit to always reach higher for myself, for my family, and for my community. (Students repeat.)
All right! (Applause.) So seniors, now comes the hard part. You have got to make that pledge a reality. Because I don’t know if you know this, that there’s something -- I’m going to be watching you, first of all. (Laughter.) And you cannot break a promise to the First Lady of the United States of America. Come on, now! (Laughter and applause.)
I am counting on you all. I am looking you all in the face, and I know that you can do this. Go in there knowing that you can do this. Whoever you’re sitting next to in class, you are just as smart as they are. You belong in those seats, do you understand me?
If I can do it, you can do this. It is not rocket science. You all have brains in your head, and you guys have character -- that’s what matters. You roll up your sleeves, you work hard, and you make us proud, okay? Make your families proud, your community proud.
And when you run into trouble, you promise me you ask for help. Don’t suffer by yourself. Everybody needs help. I need help every day. (Laughter.) So I want you guys to always reach out and ask for help. Will you promise me that?
MRS. OBAMA: All right. I cannot wait to see what you all do with the rest of your lives. I am so honored to be here. Congratulations. And I will see you in a few years when you get those degrees.
God bless you all. Congratulations. (Applause.)
12:58 P.M. CDT