High school seniors celebrate College Signing Day

Sierra Drummond cheers when Temple University is announced at the Reach Higher Philly College Signing Day Wednesday, July 7, 2017. Drummond will attend Temple in fall, 2017. The event is part of former First Lady, Michelle Obama's Reach Higher Initiative, and it aimed to celebrate students academic success. (MARGO REED / Staff Photographer)

Badia Weeks couldn’t stop smiling as she sat in the Wells Fargo Center in her Ursinus College sweatshirt.  Surrounded by hundreds of other Philadelphia high school seniors, she grew more excited as she listened to speeches about following her dreams, and realized that after making it through years of standardized tests, applications, and deadlines, she could officially say she was going to college.

Weeks, a senior at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, was one of several thousand Philadelphia high school seniors who packed the center in South Philadelphia on Wednesday for #ReachHigherPhilly College Signing Day, an event reminiscent of signing day for athletes. During the event, students waved homemade Class of 2021 signs, cheer squads and bands performed, and the Washington-based rapper Wale took to the stage as Philadelphia celebrated the seniors’ achievements.

The goal of the event: Get students excited about college.

Badia Weeks and Malik Rush laugh after receiving scholarships during the #ReachHigherPhilly College Signing Day. (MARGO REED / Staff Photographer)

“College isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said keynote speaker Eric Waldo, who helped found the program as executive director for the U.S. Department of Education’s Reach Higher Initiative.

“Believe in yourself,” he added. “There’s a whole system out there who want to see you get to, and through, college.”

This year, with a new partnership with the nonprofit CF Charities, more than 50 Philadelphia high schools and 3,000 students attended the fully funded event.

Seniors from local public, charter, and parochial schools gathered in the arena to celebrate as they and their peers received scholarships, won prizes, and watched as representatives from their new colleges paraded in and welcomed them.

The highlight of the event was the surprise appearance by Wale, who performed some of his hits as students sang and danced along.

“This event is huge. It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” said Malik Rush, a senior at Carver who will study computer science at Virginia State University in the fall. “It shows how Philly is progressing when it comes to youth and education.”

Saphari Evans tears up and leans on Brittni Collins after a motivational speech. The young people, many of whom are first-generation college students, said they were surprised and humbled by the show of encouragement from the School District, which supported the event.

“It means a lot. It’s just so much to know that I got into college and everyone cares and is celebrating,” said Jasmine Smith, a senior at  Samuel Fels High School who will attend Shippensburg University. “I’m really glad I came.”

Signing Day has grown nationally since it was started three years ago by former first lady Michelle Obama. This year, there were more than 1,500 events in all 50 states, the program reported.

Philadelphia was one of the first cities in the country to join the program, and the number of participating students and schools has doubled since it was first held at St. Joseph’s University in 2015, officials said.

“Philly does an amazing job. … I’m just thankful that the city was able to come out and support our students,” said #ReachHigherPhilly event chair Tia Rideout. “We need to make sure our students know that higher education is the key in order for them to be successful.”