Rafael Gutierrez/The Paisano

First Lady Michelle Obama announced her new “Reach Higher” initiative at UTSA Friday, May 2. Reach Higher encourages students to take charge of their future by pursuing higher education.

Obama chose to speak in San Antonio after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted San Antonio’s College Signing Day on his blog. San Antonio’s educational climate has had a significant turnaround, improving college enrollment by 49 percent since 2010, according to SA2020.

“We need more communities doing what you’re doing here in San Antonio,” said the First Lady. “You are what Reach Higher is all about.”

Over 2,000 high school seniors filled the Convocation Center to listen to the First Lady and to pledge to enroll in and graduate from college. College Signing Day was the highlight of College Week SA, a weeklong series of events held to encourage higher education among high school students.

“Years ago our nation had the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. Since then we have dropped to 12,” said the First Lady. She also discussed the President’s North Star education goal for the U.S. to again have the largest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

The event ties to the Mayor’s SA2020 plan, which aims to achieve similar education goals by increasing college enrollment rates to 80 percent and college attainment to 50 percent by 2020.

San Antonio’s attainment rate currently hovers around 35 percent, according to a recent study by the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation focused on higher education issues. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reported enrollment rates to be slightly higher at 57 percent.

Notable attendees included San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Congressman Joaquin Castro, UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo and his wife, UTSA Professor Harriett Romo.

The First Lady was introduced by future UTSA student, Rocio Alvarado, who spoke about the struggles of committing to education as a Spanish-speaking immigrant. She was chosen to be a speaker after submitting an essay to Upward Bound, an organization aimed at strengthening the academic skills of high school seniors.

Alvarado learned English after moving to the U.S. as a child and quickly excelled from ESL to Advanced Placement classes.

“When I came to the U.S. from Mexico, my family lived in a rundown home. College seemed like an impossible dream,” said Alvarado. “In honor of my father who passed away a month ago, I am here to make a declaration that I will go to college, graduate and give back.”

In the fall, Alvarado plans to study criminal justice and minor in psychology while volunteering for any organization that will help her give back to the community. As a quickly growing institution, Alvarado claimed UTSA was an ideal choice to pursue her education.

Out of the thousands of high school seniors in attendance, over 450 will be attending UTSA. In attendance at the event, Student Government Association President Zack Dunn said of the incoming freshmen, “I have no doubt that they will be the next wave of leadership this university needs.”

According to Romo, UTSA was chosen to host the event over other universities in San Antonio as a result of its commitment to excellence. “We’re very honored, The First Lady has been incredibly gracious,” said Romo.

Unfortunately for students, the event was closed to the public. “It was a great day for UTSA, a great day for our students to know that Michelle Obama was on campus, even if a lot of them couldn’t come,” said Romo. “Anything of this nature is going to be good for UTSA and San Antonio, in the future and beyond. You can’t have one of the most famous people in the world come to your campus and tell you they love you and it not impact a lot of people. We are on the map and recognized as a great place to be.”

According to Romo, it is estimated that a minimum of 70 percent of incoming freshman will be in the top quartile of their high school class.

Mayor Julian Castro supported Romo’s assertions. “San Antonio can’t become a brain-powered community without UTSA’s continued success,” said the mayor. “I’m glad to see UTSA producing more college graduates and contributing so much to San Antonio.”

The First Lady’s speech ended with a pledge in which the high school seniors committed to enroll in and graduate from college for themselves, their family and the community. Before leaving, Obama encouraged the college hopefuls to persevere through hardship. “When you run into trouble, promise me that you’ll ask for help. I’ll be watching y’all. And you cannot break a promise to the First Lady.”

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