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Eric Gay, Associated Press
First lady Michelle Obama greets high school students during College Signing Day, an annual celebration of San Antonio high school seniors committing themselves to higher education, Friday, May 2, 2014, in San Antonio.

SAN ANTONIO — First lady Michelle Obama on Friday kicked off a new "Reach Higher" initiative to encourage American students to commit to education beyond high school.

Obama told about 2,100 San Antonio high school students at the South Texas city's "College Signing Day" that the U.S. once had the highest percentage of college graduates in the world but has dropped to 12th globally.

"That's not acceptable," she said. "That's not who we are.

"All of you have a role to play," she told the students.

In her remarks, she had the students stand, raise their right hands and led them in reciting a pledge where they committed to enroll, persevere and graduate.

"So seniors, now comes the hard part," she said as the college-bound students cheered. "You have got to make that pledge a reality."

The signing day, involving 38 high schools from around the area, is part of Mayor Julian Castro's long-term initiative to improve high school graduation rates and increase the number of residents with college degrees.

"We believe y'all are role models for your younger brothers and sisters and younger folks in our community," said Castro, whose national prominence has grown since his keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention where President Barack Obama was nominated for a second term.

At Friday's event, Michelle Obama also asked that parents read more to their younger children, urged businesses to offer more summer job opportunities for college students and appealed to foundations to offer more higher education scholarships.

While the students wore college apparel from their new schools, Obama wore a T-shirt from Princeton. She said President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were wearing their college gear Friday and urged other Americans to do the same.

"It's great, it's very uplifting," said Gabriela Varela, 17, of San Antonio, who committed to Texas A&M University to study petroleum engineering.

Roxanna Onofre, 17, of San Antonio, said she, like Varela, would be the first in her family to attend college. She plan to study civil engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She said it's something she's been looking forward to "since I was little."

Obama's appearance, and the commitment ceremony, was a validation of her plan, she said.

"It feels like it's really official," Onofre said.

"It's an experience to hear what she has to say and what she feels like is my part of the future," Varela said.

The pep rally-like event caps Destination Week, a Castro-inspired weeklong series of happenings focused on education. It's also under the umbrella of SA2020, a citywide, decadelong initiative that's evolved into a nonprofit partnership with goals that include improvements to San Antonio's education, environment, arts and culture, transportation and family life.

"We set a goal that 80 percent of our graduating seniors would go to college," he said. "In a couple of years, when you all walk the stage and receive a college degree. That's going to be a fantastic moment for you and your family and for our city."

Castro, 39 and in his third two-year term, first proposed the signing day four years ago. It's intended to be similar to ceremonies for high school athletes choosing colleges and has grown from an "incredibly small" turnout of a few hundred seniors to doubling in size each year, SA2020 spokeswoman Molly Cox said.