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College & Workforce Readiness

White House Event Motivates First-Generation College Students to Persevere

By Caralee J. Adams — July 24, 2015 2 min read
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First Lady Michelle Obama hosted 130 incoming college freshmen from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds at the White House Thursday to offer her advice and encouragement—with the help of some star power.

“Education should be cool again,” said Mrs. Obama on a panel with rapper, Wale, E! News co-anchor Terrence Jenkins, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Manuel Contreras, a rising senior at Brown University. “This should be the cool thing to do in life.”

The 2015 Beating the Odds Summit included students representing 70 nonprofit organizations who were a mix of urban, rural, foster, homeless, special needs and underrepresented youth who have overcome challenges to make it to college.

Obama shared her personal story of being a first-generation college student at Princeton University, how she struggled to adapt to a new culture, big lectures, dorm life, and wondering if she had overreached. Her message to students was one of perseverance. “Don’t listen to the doubters,” she told the audience. “Hard work is the key to anything you are going to do.”

She warned students that they would face challenges in college, but not to be afraid of failure. “Failure is a necessary part of growth and success,” Obama said

Wale talked about how college forced him to be responsible, helped him discover his passion, and learn skills that he uses in his music career. “College was like taking the training wheels off my life,” he said. The Washington artist attended Virginia State, Bowie State, and Robert Morris universities, but never graduated.

Coming from San Diego as a son of Mexican immigrants to Providence, R.I., Contreras said he was surrounded by students who were well-read and had money and it took him months to feel as though he belonged. “I was confused about who I was and who I was pretending to be,” she said. Contreas founded the IvyG, network for first-generation college students attending Ivy League colleges..

He came to embrace the idea that college was an opportunity to share his diverse experience and advocate for change. “So many of us in our community don’t have voices in this country,” Contreras said. “By getting an education, you’re able to walk between two different worlds.”

Arne Duncan said he is inspired by young people who are born into adverse situations and recognize education as the path to success.

“So many young people are working every day to beat the odds,” said Duncan. “We need to help them fulfill that potential,”

The panelists emphasized the importance of first-generation students creating a support system on campus and reaching out for help at the first signs of trouble."If you have questions, I guarantee others are feeling the same way,” Obama said. “You need to develop the maturity to ask for help when you need it ...You cannot do this alone and you aren’t supposed to do it alone.”

The odds of completing colleges are strongly linked to income. While 77 percent of students from upper-income families earn a college degree, just 9 percent of those from households earning under $34,000 a year finish a bachelor’s degree, according to a study released earlier this year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.