Students from across the city stepped out of yellow buses Friday morning and poured into Royal Farms Arena. Drummers and lines of volunteers greeted them with high-fives and cheers as they made their way to Baltimore’s first-ever College Signing Day event.
As the students walked into the arena — many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of their future universities — some thrust their hands in the air or recorded their grand entrance on their cellphones.
For these college-bound seniors, Friday was about celebrating their own accomplishments and those of their peers.
“We’re here as each other’s cheerleaders,” said Carver Vocational Technical High School senior Clarity Willoughby. “This is brilliance out loud.”
The event is an off-shoot of one of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiatives, aimed at promoting higher education and highlighting the academic achievements of young people. For five years, Obama has encouraged cities to host these “signing days” for their high school seniors, and there are more than 2,000 planned across the country during this graduation season.
It was part pep rally, part concert and part college fair, with recruiters from more than a dozen Maryland institutions there to hand out pamphlets and university swag. Mascots from local colleges and sports teams roamed the arena, where students were divided up by their schools.
“This touches my heart,” said 18-year-old Curtis Harrison, a senior at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, who plans to go to Frostburg State University. “People I don’t even know are excited for me.”
For some, the timing of such a positive event felt necessary. In the past week, two Baltimore high school students have been shot and killed.
Kenneth Murray, a Baltimore City College senior, played football with Ray Glasgow III, a promising athlete with dreams of attending Hampton University. Glasgow, a junior, was gunned down May 5 near his former middle school.
Murray, 18, said he could feel Glasgow with him Friday as the city rallied for its students.
“It makes me work harder now, knowing he’s watching over me,” said Murray, who has committed to play football at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa. “I just wish he could’ve made it to something like this. He had one more year to go. Now our main goal is to make Ray proud.”
Throughout the day, the students ran into people they may have gone to elementary or middle school with. “Where are you going to college?” they’d ask each other as they excitedly caught up.
Willoughby said the event gives students from different high schools the chance to get to know each other better before they eventually run into each other on campuses away from home.
The 18-year-old Carver student is heading to McDaniel College in Westminster. She said an event like Friday’s reminds students that through all the tough times, there is reason to celebrate.
Willoughby said she had a difficult senior year. She had to help care for sick family members, as well as a newborn nephew. She balances her school work with a part-time job at a Marriott hotel.
But the work paid off, she said. She’s No. 2 in her class and heading to McDaniel with a full scholarship. She wants more stories like hers to define the city.
“We come from Baltimore, a place most people see as the city that kills,” she said. “It’s good to see the youth here graduating high school and making a positive impact.”
Schools CEO Sonja Santelises had a similar message, speaking from the stage in Royal Farms Arena.
“Let me tell you this: You are Baltimore City,” she said. “You are the ones who are going to lead when I’m too old and I’m too tired. … This right here represents the best of the young people in the city.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh also attended, and touted her initiative to provide free tuition at Baltimore City Community College for all city public school graduates. She encourged students to take advantage of it.
Amari Campo, a senior at City College, is one of the students who plans to do so. He said he will study psychology and get his associate’s degree before considering a transfer to another local school.
Not all the students who attended Friday’s celebration had made their post-graduation decisions yet. Darnell Poole, a 19-year-old student at the National Academy Foundation School, came to visit the booths of different community colleges he’s applied to so he could get a better sense of what he wants to do next.
While he isn’t sure on the details of his plan, Poole said, he knows that five years from now, he wants to look back and say, “Oh yeah, I did all that.”