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.
"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."
"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.