Michelle Obama speaks at the “Beating the Odds Summit,” held at Howard University on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Columnist

A Northern Virginia Community College graduate sat in a cream-colored chair next to one of the nation’s most accomplished women, former first lady Michelle Obama, and described his failures.

“My journey actually begins at high school. I barely graduated with a 1.6 GPA,” Ariel Ventura-Lazo said. He then enrolled in community college. “I failed every class. I wasn’t ready for it.”

But that’s okay, he assured the 90 high school graduates who had come from New York, Philadelphia and the District to hear from adults who had been where they were heading. The students will soon become the first generation in their families to attend college.

Ventura-Lazo, who is also a first-generation American, told the crowd how it took him a bit longer than others to find success. He dropped out, became a father and worked for five years before deciding to return to school. He has since graduated from Northern Virginia Community College, attends George Mason University and works for his alma mater as a program coordinator.

“It was overwhelming. It was scary. It was frightening,” he said of his early college days. “I didn’t know the terminology, the ropes. I didn’t know what an associate degree was, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree.”

What he did know: “I knew that my mom wanted me to go to college.”


Panelists, from left to right at the “Beating the Odds Summit” are Wes Moore, Rachel Scott, Michelle Obama, Ariel Ventura-Lazo and Malcolm Jenkins. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

He also knew, he said, that it wasn’t going to be easy.

We talk a lot about college admissions in this country. We argue about affirmative action. We share stories on our social media pages of students who, despite homelessness, loss and other childhood experiences that might have limited others, make it into well-known colleges and universities. I love those stories. I have written some.

What we don’t often talk about is what happens after those students get accepted, and those helium balloons that say “Congratulations!” deflate.

We don’t often talk about how some enroll in college, but then don’t show up. The phenomenon is called “summer melt,” as if they just disappear. In some communities, it is estimated that 40 percent of students who intend to go to college never show up to their classes.


Students from New York, Philadelphia and D.C. sit in an auditorium at Howard University and listen to speakers for the “Beating the Odds Summit.” (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

We don’t often talk about how some of those students will face unique challenges. Maybe a family member will try to pull them back. Maybe the phrase “office hours” will feel foreign and intimidating.

I remember the moment I realized how underprepared my background had left me for college. During my freshman year, a professor asked me to stay after class. Once the room emptied, he handed me an essay I had written and said, “If you ever do this again, I will have to dock your grade.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, until I looked at the paper and saw the words “double space” underlined. Multiple times.

I had turned in a 10-page single-spaced essay, instead of a 10-page double-spaced essay. He thought I was trying to show off. The truth was that before coming to college, I didn’t have regular access to a computer, so I had no idea that double-space existed. I also didn’t think to ask anyone. At the time, the only person in my family who had a college degree was my older sister.

I didn’t tell my professor any of that, of course. I just assured him it wouldn’t happen again. I realize now that was a mistake.

We should talk openly about our different life experiences, because it’s not enough that admission numbers reflect diversity. College graduation numbers should, too.

At the “Beating the Odds Summit,” which took place in a Howard University auditorium on Tuesday, the students who had been picked to attend received advice, warnings and encouragement. They were reminded that they were changing the trajectory not just of their own lives, but also of their family’s lives. The event marked the fifth anniversary for the Summit, which was started by Michelle Obama during her time in the White House.

“You are exactly where you belong,” Wes Moore, who grew up in Baltimore and is now the chief executive of Robin Hood, an anti-poverty nonprofit group, told the students.

“Everywhere that you are, you are not there because of someone’s benevolence,” he said. “You are not there because of a social experiment. You are not there because someone wants to sprinkle diversity into a room. You’re there because that room would be incomplete if you weren’t there. You’re there because that conversation would be weak if your voice was not included.”

Moore later led the panel in which Ventura-Lazo shared the stage with NFL player Malcolm Jenkins, University of Washington graduate Rachel McKenzie Scott and Obama.

As they waited to walk onto the stage, Ventura-Lazo said that Obama helped calm his nerves. She assured him that it was just going to be a casual conversation.

“She said, ‘You have such a great story,’ ” the 29-year-old told me afterward. “She said, ‘These students need to hear your story because they’re just like you.’ ”

They are also just like her. Obama is a first-generation college student as well.

“I see myself in you all,” she told the students. “I was where you all were.”

“I know all of you sitting there, no matter how much you may front, there is a part of you that is wondering whether this is a mistake, and whether I belong and whether I can do this,” she said. “Because those were the messages that I had going on in my head, and they still come up through life. . . . Those demons are deep in us. And we live in a country that sometimes wants you to feel that way. They want you to feel like you don’t belong.”

She then assured them: “This is not a mistake.”

She told them they were “more than capable” and reminded them that they had already overcome “some deep, dark obstacles.”

“So, now, I want you to walk onto those campuses, and fake some confidence, okay?” she said. “Because you’re going to be faking it for a while. It’s okay. We’re all faking it. Your classmates are faking it, too.”

Before Obama finished talking, she spoke about Ventura-Lazo and the others sitting onstage with her.

“We have some examples here of young people who were just where you are five years ago,” she said. “And it wasn’t always easy, but they made it through.”