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Michelle Obama tells Howard County high school seniors to 'relax'

First Lady Michelle Obama participates during the panel hosted by Essence Magazine to kick off the magazine's second annual college tour at Howard Community College in Columbia on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015.

Michelle Obama offered high school seniors some advice on applying to college during a visit at Howard Community College Thursday.

"Relax. You live in America. You have a lot of options," Obama said. "We just want students to know about them."

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Obama's visit to Howard County was part of an initiative she launched in 2014, Reach Higher, which carries the message that every student in America should pursue education after high school.

"This is the ticket," she said to the students. "It's the best investment in your future."

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In 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median weekly earning for a worker with a bachelor's degree was $1,101, compared to $688 for a worker with a high school diploma.

According to its website, Obama's Reach Higher promotes higher education by exposing students to college opportunities, advocating for college affordability, encouraging academic planning and supporting high school counselors and mentors.

Obama launched the initiative in 2014 to support President Obama's "North Star" goal for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. has the fifth-largest proportion as of 2014, with 43 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 having earned a college degree.

As part of her visit, Obama answered questions from the Howard County students during a panel discussion hosted by Essence Magazine, a lifestyle and beauty magazine whose target audience is African-American women. The panelists offered students advice on applying to college — from financial aid applications to mentoring — and standing out as a college applicant.

Other panelists included Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington; Howard County General Hospital President Steven Snelgrove; Trecya Jordan, a nursing student at the college; and panel moderator Lauren Williams, a features editor for Essence.

"Colleges are truly looking for the whole story," Obama said. "They are looking to diversify their student populations, so they're looking for students with many different experiences. Don't downplay the parts of you that make you unique."

"And spell check yourself," she said.

A student from Howard High in Ellicott City asked, "How do you know which college is best for you?"

"I would just encourage you to look at your options. Take a tour and meet with alumni, professors, and students, if you can afford to. You can even take a virtual tour. In the end ask yourself, what do you feel here," Obama said, while pointing at her heart. "You're going to be okay."

Moderator Lauren Williams asked why Obama decided to visit the college.

"When people think of college, they usually think of four-year universities," Obama said. "But that's not always the right path for students. Community colleges provide a clear and affordable pathway, particularly for kids who think college is unaffordable," she said.

With student debt at record levels, college affordability has become a hot topic in policy debates at local and national levels, from student protests about tuition hikes to the 2016 presidential race. This has put community colleges like Howard Community College front and center as affordable alternatives to private and even state universities.

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One year of full-time tuition at HCC costs $4,624, compared to $10,062 at University of Maryland-Baltimore County, a public school in Catonsville; and $44,090 at Loyola University Maryland, a private school in Baltimore.

"I'm on track to graduate debt-free from here," said HCC student Akbar Tolbert, a Howard County native who is studying public health. He was attending the event as editor-in-chief of the HCC Times.

"I think today's event addresses the stigma of community college," Tolbert said. "It can raise awareness amongst high school students in Howard County about the college, because lots of them don't want to go here. They want to go to a four-year program."

Before sitting on the panel, Obama toured an emergency medical services simulation suite in the campus' health sciences building accompanied by five Howard County seniors. The facility was built in 2013 and includes simulated patient care rooms and a dental hygiene center for the community.

Paramedic student Diego Esmolo showed Obama and the high school seniors the back of an ambulance used by students to practice emergency medical care.

"Does anyone know what EMT stands for?" he asked the students.

Esmolo graduated from the Career Academy Emergency Medical Technician program in Howard County, through which he earned an EMT basic certification and his high school diploma at the same time. He is attending Howard Community College on scholarship.

Obama asked the high school students, "Have you heard about these programs?"

During the panel discussion, Obama reminded the students "Life does not end after high school. I'm sorry you're feeling pressure, and it's weighing on you. But you have to plan for life, and it never stops.

Adding a personal note, Obama said, "The President and I are planning right now. What are we going to do after this? Because we're almost done here. We have to figure out where we're going to live! It never stops. So get used to making a plan."

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