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First Lady Michelle Obama sends WMST PCHS graduates off with a mandate

First Lady Michelle Obama challenged the 98 graduates of the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School (WMST PCHS) Class of 2009 to view their graduation as "just the beginning."

At the June 3 ceremony at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium in Washington, she recalled that after graduating from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, she had times of uncertainty about whether she could succeed at Princeton University. "Part of me started believing the doubters," even though her older brother Craig Robinson attended Princeton, she recalled during her keynote graduation address. Princeton, after all, was far away from Chicago, and her parents had not attended college.

Having overcome the challenges – Mrs. Obama graduated from Princeton with honors and then graduated from Harvard Law School – she challenged the Class of 2009 to be engaged in their college classes by asking questions, introducing themselves to their professors, attending office hours and "getting in their face." She also encouraged them to support their WMST classmates and remain close to their "wonderful teachers and coaches and mentors" when they’re in college.

"They got your back," Mrs. Obama said. "So many people are supporting you." She also recited a litany of African-American and Latinos who have "beaten the odds before you," including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Musician Herbie Hancock, Dr. LaSalle D. Lafall, Jr., President Barack Obama and Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Parents of children about to attend college can feel some uncertainty and fear about financing their children’s education, she said. They may feel that they don’t have much guidance to offer if they didn’t attend college. Mrs. Obama told the parents gathered at the WMST graduation that what matters their unconditional love for their children and their commitment to them.

Mrs. Obama praised WMST PCHS for challenging the stereotype that African-American and Latino children can’t excel in mathematics and science.

But she also reiterated that graduates should have "no excuses" for failure and that "your own future is in your hands," after high school. She encouraged the young graduates to learn about different cultures, make new friends, learn a foreign language and "let people get to know you."

Valedictorian Jaren Davis ’09, who will attend Georgetown University on a full scholarship, said that his class had "generated a fresh spirit" at the school. Not only had Jasmine Williams ’09 successfully invited Michelle Obama to speak at the June 3 graduation, but a record number of WMST PCHS students had completed professional internships during the school year and a WMST PCHS student LeJon Vines ‘09 had earned a Posse Scholarship worth $100,000 for the first time.

Davis also spoke about his evolution from a shy marching band musician from a small town in East Texas who came to Washington two years ago and became a vigorous member of the WMST debate team with the highest grade point average in his class.

Rosmer Portillo ‘09, salutarian, spoke about how his family came to the U.S. from San Miguel in El Salvador searching for a "beacon of light and a land of opportunity" when he was in fifth grade and didn’t know English. He came to WMST PCHS and found students who were "non-judgmental" with whom he could easily make friends. He worked hard at the school in part to make his family proud.

"We are proud of you!" called his father from near the back of Cramton Auditorium, perhaps the most touching moment of the 2-hour ceremony. "We love you!" the elder Portillo later exclaimed.

Susan Kay, founder and president of Hoops Dreams, announced $1,000-$4,000 college scholarships to several WMST PCHS graduates at the 2-hour graduation ceremony. Along with D.C. City Councilmen Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5) and Michael A. Brown (At-Large), she congratulated the scholarship winners.