Economy

Michelle Obama offers love, advice to college-bound Detroiters at DCAN kickoff

On May 5, the sound of thousands of Detroit high school seniors cheering en masse filled the Matthaei Center at Wayne State University, a beautiful noise inspired by the fact that First Lady Michelle Obama had just told those students that she loves them.

It was one remarkable moment in a morning of remarkable moments as the Detroit College Access Network (DCAN) hosted the first citywide College Signing Day event.

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Students show off their College Bound Detroit T-shirts.//Photo Courtesy of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan

The event brought more than 2,000 high school seniors from across Detroit to Wayne State to celebrate the fact that next year, each one will be studying at a place of higher learning. Obama headlined a star-studded line-up of guest speakers as part of her Reach Higher campaign, which encourages kids across the nation to explore their college options.

The fact that Obama was there to tell those students she not only believes in them, but hey, she loves them too, happened thanks to one phone call.

“True story,” said Ashley Johnson, the K-12 program manager at Excellent Schools Detroit, which convenes DCAN, a network of 20 organizations, including the Skillman Foundation. “I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang and it was someone from the White House. They’d heard we were thinking of having a citywide college signing day event and said it might be something they’d be interested in.”

That’s the kind of call you take. Fast-forward just a few weeks of intense behind-the-scenes work from DCAN’s member organizations, and there stood Obama before all those kids, telling them that they matter.

“This is your day,” Obama said. “I think it’s time we shine more light on the real path for success for young people, and that’s higher education. That’s your ticket. You are all what kids in this country should be aspiring to. That’s why we started the Reach Higher Imitative. We want to put higher education front and center in this country. We want to lift up young people like you and cities like Detroit that are overcoming great challenges and truly committing to education.”

The day made a definite mark for the students, including six kids who got to introduce Obama and give her a hug before her speech.

“I feel more motivated and more determined to keep going,” said Taylor Hawthorn, a senior from Henry Ford School for Creative Students who will be going to Bowling Green next year. “I can do it, even if I get discouraged.”

“I really needed that,” said Daisha Snodgrass, a senior from Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine. “It touched me.”

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First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to thousands of Detroit high school seniors at Detroit’s first citywide College Signing Day. //Photo courtesy of the United Way for Southeastern Michigan

If you haven’t heard of DCAN before, there’s a good reason for that – this event was its big public launch. The network itself formed about a year ago and has spent much of the last year planning on how to improve college access in the city. Its goals are to increase college enrollment, college persistence, and college graduation rates in the city.

Although DCAN is barely in its toddler years, it can already call itself a success, and not just because of this event. Its first goal was to improve the FAFSA completion rate. And in one year, DCAN raised that rate from 56 percent to 73 percent. That meant 470 more students across Detroit filled out the form, “which is very important, because it’s the tool that unlocks student financial aid. Also, studies show that students who fill out the FAFSA are something like 60 percent more likely to eventually enroll in college,” Johnson said.

It will be hard to top the first citywide College Signing Day event, which also included speeches from Grammy winner Ciara, U-M football coach Jim Harbaugh, and Dr. James T. Minor, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for higher education.

Obama implored the kids there to “remember this day.”

That will be an easy promise to keep.

“It was very motivating,” said Uossif Saleh, a senior from Universal Academy. “It motivated me to try harder and showed me all these opportunities that are out there. Hopefully, I’m going to get out there in the real world and see that.”

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