'Ignore the haters,' Michelle Obama tells 8,000 Philly students

Former first lady Michelle Obama enters the stage to speak during the National College Signing Day event.

Michelle Obama has a lot in common with many of the 8,000 Philadelphia students who packed the Liacouras Center Wednesday.

Once, she was a kid of modest means, a first-generation college student with a college counselor who told her that her dreams of an Ivy League education were perhaps a little out of reach.

“There are all these people out there telling you what you can’t do,” the former first lady said. “I am so proud of you all. You did just what I did. You ignored the haters.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks at College Signing Day, an event honoring Philadelphia students for their pursuit of a college education.

A massive shout of appreciation from the crowd at National College Signing Day went up from an audience full of students with firm plans to enter college, trade school or the military.

The annual event, started by Obama in 2014, is designed to celebrate students headed to college, and this year, Philadelphia was chosen to host the main event. Nationwide, 600,000 students were registered to participate, with events happening in 2,000  locations.

“Today, we celebrating y’all going to college!” a DJ shouted as students filed into the Liacouras Center.

Obama inspired students from public, charter, private, and parochial schools, saying that when she entered Princeton as an undergraduate, everything felt unfamiliar.

“I want you to know: It is perfectly normal for you to be scared about this next step,” she said. “I certainly was.”

Once they get to college, it won’t be easy, Obama warned the students.

“Shoot. When Barack and I set foot in the White House, it was a struggle,” Obama said.

Remember, the former first lady said: You have a community back home rooting for you. Ask for help. Don’t isolate yourself.

“We love you so much. We have such high hopes for you. I know you have everything it takes to succeed,” said Obama.

She reminded the students that college is “the investment that no one can ever take away from you.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Former first lady Michelle Obama dances with celebrity guests after speaking at College Signing Day at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.

Obama headlined an event that was crowded with celebrities — Nick Cannon emceed, Bradley Cooper, Kelly Rowland, Questlove, Robert DeNiro, Rebel Wilson, Karlie Kloss, members of the NCAA-tournament winning Villanova basketball team, Philadelphia Eagles player Malcolm Jenkins, and others.

“I can’t wait to see what you do with your lives,” said actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, from Modern Family.

“When you have a degree, you have so many options in life,” said Wilson, an Australian actress who has two college degrees.

Some got political — DeNiro, who urged students to vote, veered off script and asked “Who here is going to Trump University?”

The crowed booed.

“Only Kanye,” Cannon quipped, a reference to rapper Kanye West’s recent affinity for President Trump.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Singer Kelly Rowland, left, and actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson speak at College Signing Day.

But mostly, there were earnest declarations of pride in the Class of 2018.

Eric Waldo, executive director of Reach Higher, which organizes National College Signing Day, said the aim is to elevate scholarship.

“This is what, as a culture, we should be celebrating,” Waldo said. “College Signing Day should be as important as as the Super Bowl, as getting an NBA contract.”

Deliyah Carrasquillo, a Philadelphia student who earned a full scholarship to West Chester University, addressed her fellow students.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Students cheer as celebrities appear onstage for National College Signing Day.

She had a rough start, said Carrasquillo, a senior at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Growing up, she “saw it all — the drugs, the dealers, the violence, the guns and everything else that goes on in Philadelphia.” She moved around a lot; her father often got high and was violent toward her mother. But school was a refuge for her, and in it she saw a path to something better.

“I am living, breathing proof that it is possible to achieve greatness from the deepest depths,” said Carrasquillo. “I know each and every one of you has a story of perseverance.”

Tamir Harper, a senior at Science Leadership Academy heading to American University on scholarship, played a special role in the pep rally: Obama introduced him, danced with him, and even posed for a selfie with him.

He loved the message of the event: that he is just as important as athletes or rap stars.

“I think that sometimes students in the field of academia get overshadowed,” said Harper. “But it’s OK to be a nerd.”