By Donovan Thomas
Recent high school graduates gathered in the Howard University School of Business auditorium to attend a panel featuring the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama as part of her annual Beating the Odds Summit. This year marked the fifth year of the Beating the Odds Summit and the Reach Higher Initiative, an initiative launched by the former first lady to motivate underrepresented students, especially those among the first generation in their family to go to college, to pursue opportunities in higher education.
The day began with an inspiring story from President Wayne A.I. Frederick, as he opened the summit. He described persevering through school while battling to subdue the chronic effects that living with sickle cell anemia brings. He closed by citing the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful which you can use to change the world.”
Ron Williams, a McDonald’s Operations Associate and a first-gen college graduate shared some of the hardships he faced in life and as being the first in his family to go to college.
“Adversity was never meant to stop you, adversity was meant to be your step up,” Williams said.
These were a few of the many words of advice the students that filled the room received.
“You’re exactly where you belong. Embrace your greatness,” said Wes Moore, author and CEO of Robin Hood.
The first panel of the day was a panel that included three Beating the Odds alumni, Manuel Contreras, Rochelle Fraenig and Darius Wesley. Contreras, who is from San Diego, is the son of undocumented parents. He attended Brown University and he described the feeling of being excited to be in school but feeling as if he didn’t belong there. He also explained the fear he had of asking for help while other students expected help.
Fraenig told the audience how her experience in foster care shaped her life and juggling her studies at the University of Michigan while caring for her younger sister.
Wesley, a graduate of Cleveland State University, discussed being a transfer student how him feeling out of place at his first schools in rural Vermont led to him transferring.
All three students emphasized the vital role the Reach Higher Initiative has played in their life, particularly with the emotional, educational and even mental support they received.
A surprise visit by Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, two members of the Women’s World Cup Championship Team concluded the student panel.
The next panel included former First Lady Obama and two-time Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins. They discussed a phenomenon known as “the summer melt,” in which 10-20 percent of high school graduates who had concrete plans to attend college fail to do so in response to the lack of support and resources they have. First Lady Obama urged the students to “practice the hard.” She described transitions in life as practice and noted how those who were afraid of change in other stages of life get stuck.
The importance of mental and physical health was also emphasized. “Mental health is one of the pegs to success,” said Obama.
Following the panels, students attended several workshops and breakout sessions on topics such as how to transition from high school to college and the anatomy of a college campus.