“Some kids are born with a silver spoon. I didn’t even have spoons, wooden or plastic,” will.i.am, the front man of Black Eyed Peas and creator of the viral “Yes We Can” video, told 111 high school graduates of the after-school college prep program College Track at a ceremony on Friday. “You and I come from the same place. I am so proud of you. I can write a song about dancing, … but what you are doing is way cooler. Going to college is way cooler.” Ana Avalos, a Mission High School senior who’s been with College Track for four years, sat in the front row and snapped pictures of the singer as he spoke.
Like most College Track graduates Ana sat next to, she will be the first in her family to go to college. Ana’s parents are farmers in southern Guatemala, and she moved here with her sisters four years ago. “When I first came here, I could barely say a sentence in English,” she told me on our ride over to the ceremony with will.i.am. “College Track was like family to me, helping me with homework, making sure I remember important deadlines, and helping me get scholarships,” she explained. Co-founded 13 years ago by Laurene Powell Jobs and Carlos Watson, College Track works with low-income high school students in East Palo Alto, San Francisco, Oakland, and New Orleans. Since nationwide, only about eight percent of low-income students of color earn a bachelor’s degree, College Track counselors help students with academics, life and leadership skills from the ninth grade all the way through college graduation. Ana will be going to UC Santa Cruz this fall.
Will.i.am had some suggestions for Ana and her College Track classmates Friday. “As you get to college, don’t get caught up in some love. Don’t get distracted by some dude or some girl. ‘Oh, she doesn’t like me.’ This is way bigger than that. You’ve worked too hard to get here, so don’t get caught up in this love thing,” was his first piece of advice.
“Don’t go to college just to get a degree. I see too many people doing that,” will.i.am added next. “I hope you are in this for something bigger. Contribute to the state of America, create jobs, change this country. Mark Zuckerberg is so young. Think about how many jobs Facebook created.”
Will.i.am wants to bring College Track to East Los Angeles, where he was raised. “I grew up in the projects of east Los Angeles. I had a lot of help, and a lot of encouragement from my mother. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be alive,” he told Ana and other graduates. Will.i.am also partnered with College Track for the first time to award seven $40,000 college scholarships this year. His mother picked the winners, he said.
His last word to the graduates? “Go out there, and do this for your family and for your country, and if you don’t, my mom will come and whup your ass,” will.i.am said to roaring applause from students and families.
*Editors’ Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Read more: “Gourmet Bribes for Test Score Improvements.” Plus: Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get all of the latest education dispatches.