Bill Clinton addresses ULGNO College Track students

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Urban League of Greater New Orleans College Track Program held its first graduation ceremony on Thursday, May 10, with former President Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker.

The Urban League College Track program empowers young people from low-income communities, aspiring to attend college.

This year 37 seniors in the program have been accepted to four-year colleges.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu was also on hand to honor the students and Malcolm Jenkins announced the recipients of The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation R.E.W.A.R.D.S. Scholarship which helps funding for their college education.

Some of these students will be the first to graduate high school in their family and others the first to attend college. Dillard University, Morehouse College and Louisiana State University are just a few of the colleges that have accepted the 37 seniors.

Former President Bill Clinton told a group of graduating New Orleans high school students Thursday that the future of the city, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina six years ago, and the country is in their hands.”Every one of you is going to have choices, choices very often your parents didn’t have,” said Clinton, the keynote speaker at a ceremony recognizing the first graduating class of the New Orleans branch of College Track, a national after-school program that helps students from low-income communities make it to college.

Clinton said he’s here because he loves New Orleans, but mostly, “I’m here because you represent the future of this country.”

And the “power of your example” will be felt in New Orleans, he said. “You’ll not only bring New Orleans back from Katrina, but you’ll take it to new heights.”

Getting a college education is the best way to have options during tough economic times, the national economic crisis and high unemployment rate, he said.

“In the last 12 years we have allowed ourselves—for the first time since the end of World War II—to fall from first to 15th in the world in the percentage of our young people getting degrees from four-year institutions, and it is killing us economically,” he said.

The unemployment rate among people with college degrees is half the rate of people without a degree, Clinton said. The income of people with college degrees is 25 to 30 percent greater than those who don’t have them, he added.

“It’s important to you,” he said.

Earlier, Clinton addressed attendees of CTIA Wireless, the U.S. cellular phone industry’s annual trade show, which ended its four-day event in New Orleans.

Before the ceremony, the 37 students met with Clinton, a longtime supporter of the program, which was launched in the San Francisco area more than a decade ago and branched out to New Orleans about five years ago. It has also been introduced in Los Angeles and Aurora, Colo., said College Track co-founder Carlos Watson.

Watson said the program offers students tutoring and guidance in finding summer jobs, volunteer work and extracurricular activities such as writing and music. It also helps them acquire financial aid for college and partners them with mentors and tutors once in college.

Clinton spent time chatting and posing for pictures with the graduates of the Urban League College Track, the New Orleans program whose primary partner is the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, prior to his address.

Candace Gautreaux could hardly contain her excitement as she waited to meet Clinton.

At 20 years old, Gautreaux had a longer and harder road than most to reach graduation. The opportunity to meet a former president was almost more than she could handle.

“I just don’t even know how to put this in words,” she said. “I was supposed to be a statistic.”

After being held back in lower elementary grades, the McDonogh 35 High School student found her footing with help from College Track. She said so many people told her to just quit, drop out and settle for a GED.

Instead, she hung in with help and guidance from the program and now is meeting the former president to boot.

“I always wanted to meet a President, any President. I’m so excited,” Gautreaux said.

Clinton said the future is riding on whether trends involving young people from low-income backgrounds can be reversed “and we lift our young people up.”

“You have to do your part of the lifting, and you will in college,” he said.

“I’m here for a lot of reasons,” Clinton said, pointing out that like many of the graduates, he was the first in his family to go to college. “My life was changed because I got to go.”

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins also attended the event.

Karlton Pannell, who’s graduating from the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, introduced Clinton.

“This is once in a lifetime, a real blessing,” said Pannell, who’s graduating from the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School and is participating in an internship program at LSU’s School of Medicine in New Orleans this summer.

It’s hard to believe college wasn’t even on his radar four years ago despite the fact that three of his sisters were in college.

“My parents struggled. They didn’t graduate from college and didn’t know how to help me,” Pannell said.

“I just didn’t care, and I didn’t take it seriously,” he added. “If it wasn’t for College Track I wouldn’t know all I needed to know to get to this point. It taught me about tuition, financial aid, how to talk to professors.”

Pannell, who will attend Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall, said the program has also taught him much about himself.

“I was rough, not focused. College Track holds you to certain expectations. I didn’t always do what I was supposed to do. I’m not a perfect student, but now I really feel respected for my effort.”

Jenkins gave some of the students scholarships through his foundation.

Many of the students in the program will be the first in their families to graduate high school or go to college. Program graduates have been accepted to Louisiana State University, Dillard University, St. John’s University, Bard College and elsewhere.

Watson said College Track serves males and females, mostly black and Latino. Besides the New Orleans students graduating this year, there are more than 150 others enrolled in the New Orleans program and more than 1,000 in programs in California and Colorado.

“I’m always excited to see the family in the audience, the little brothers and sisters and cousins,” said Watson, who will preside over the New Orleans ceremony. “The effect our graduates will have on these family members, the example they will be for them, that is as important as what we’re doing on stage.”