WASHINGTON – Oscar McClain tried his hardest to get good grades in school. He wasn’t always that way; when he was in 6th grade, he skated by with C’s. But after his grandfather died, he realized he could do better, so he worked harder. Hard enough, in fact, to receive straight A’s through high school and graduate as salutatorian. Now he’s preparing to go to college and major in chemical engineering.
McClain, of Baton Rouge, La., and over 130 other college-bound students listened as the first lady told them to aim for the biggest dream they have. Michelle Obama hosted a summit for students Thursday at the White House.
The president dropped by, and Wale, whose musical career took off during college, said his time in school was “taking the training wheels off.” He wakes up every morning at 6 a.m., he said, because if he didn’t then he might miss an opportunity. He learned that from college.
“I always refer to my college days because it taught me to be self-made,” he said. “It taught me how to be my own boss. And a lot of you guys are going to be your own bosses one day.”
As part of her Reach Higher initiative, the first lady shared advice with the college-bound students from across the country during a “Beating the Odds” summit. The students at the summit were chosen because they overcame disadvantages in order to go to college.
“Do not be afraid to fail,” the first lady said. “And sometimes that’s why we don’t work hard because we think maybe if we put our all into it and we don’t really achieve what we want, then that’s somehow a statement.”
She added more advice: “Roll up your sleeves. Don’t be afraid to work hard. And if you fail, then recover. Get over it. Get up, figure out what went wrong, and go back in.”
The summit included a panel discussions, a performance by Wale and workshops hosted by the Department of Education, Chief Education Evangelist for Google Jaime Casap and other education leaders, all designed to give students the tools they need to graduate.
Rising Brown University senior Manuel Contreras, of San Diego, a Mexican-American and first-generation college student, said he felt he did not fit in at Brown when he started college and soon did not fit in at home because of his experiences at Brown.
“There were a lot of students that were a lot wealthier than me,” Contreras said. “There were a lot of students that would talk about books – books that I’d never read because my high school wasn’t as resourced as other schools were. … While Brown was wonderful, and there was this great community and all this stuff is really exciting, there were so many times where I felt like I didn’t belong there.”
He decided he did not want that to be the experience for other first-generation students, Contreras said, so he co-founded 1vyG, a networking organization for first-generation students at Ivy League schools.
When President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance, he was greeted by an overjoyed, cheering crowd.
“America succeeds only when every young person in America is able to dream big and has the tools to make their dreams,” he said to the students, most of whom held their cell phones high in the air. “If you are willing to work hard, if you are willing to dig deep, and if you’re willing to make sacrifices, and if you’re willing to embrace the values that are vested in us, there’s nothing that is going to stop you. You’ve got to set your bar high.”
The Reach Higher initiative is designed to help students get the tools they need to get degrees or vocational training. The program also focuses on making college more affordable and teaching students how to succeed at college.
Reach reporter Jaelynn Grisso at [email protected] or (202) 408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns onFacebook and follow us on Twitter.
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