Michelle Obama launched the Reach Higher initiative from the White House in May 2014 to inspire students to pursue and complete their education past high school, whether at a four-year college, a two-year community college, or a certificate or training program.
The initiative helps students access the resources and opportunities they need for college success. After the Obamas left office, Reach Higher transitioned to a nonprofit organization—Common App—with Mrs. Obama as the honorary board chair. Common App works to make the college application process easier, more joyful, and truly available to all students, no matter who they are.
Each May, Reach Higher helps to rally students and communities around the nation with a tradition that’s been gaining strength with each passing year: College Signing Day.
Teachers, school counselors, and parents join together to give graduating students a memorable celebration to congratulate their efforts and commitments to continue their education. In the past, Reach Higher’s cornerstone College Signing Day celebrations have included celebrities like John Legend, Tracee Ellis Ross, Bradley Cooper, Zendaya, Camila Cabello, and Conan O’Brien. Mrs. Obama gives an uplifting address. And from coast to coast, communities gather to give each student a sendoff they have earned.
But in 2020, all of that changed.
As schools and businesses closed, as cities and states instituted lockdowns, plans for College Signing Day came to a screeching halt. No one knew if schools would host graduations or if colleges would admit students on time. No one knew if students and families would even want to celebrate. No one knew what the country would feel like by the time graduation season rolled around. But high school students—especially those who are too often counted out—will always hope for a better tomorrow. They will find a way forward for one another—and for themselves.
So, in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, thousands of students, parents, and educators reached out to celebrate all that this class had accomplished. Students in caps and gowns found a way to celebrate virtually while protesting racial inequities. DREAMers shared photos about their journeys to encourage others to always be proud of who they are.
Parents reimagined graduation ceremonies in backyards, playing “Pomp and Circumstance” on cellphone speakers. And teachers, counselors, and principals did what they do best: supporting and encouraging their students, making them feel special for defying the obstacles in their way.
That, far more than any virus, is the legacy of 2020. When special occasions were canceled, and dreams could have been deferred, students, their families, and their schools showed us all that when we come together in common purpose, we really can change the world.
Congratulations, graduates. Keep reaching higher, as high as you can possibly imagine.
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