As a host on MTV and now VH1, I’ve had some memorable moments in Viacom’s studios overlooking Times Square. In that space, I’ve spoken with President Obama and Senator McCain during Choose or Lose events, interviewed pop stars like Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande, and celebrated with Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, and Justin Timberlake.
But one the most memorable moments I’ve had in Times Square was in June 2015, when the Taco Bell Foundation and Get Schooled took over Times Square’s digital billboards to celebrate and award scholarships to 300 amazing students. One of the students featured in this Times Square Yearbook told the crowd: “I didn’t think I could ever go to college, because it wasn’t something that my family ever did. Graduating from high school was a big achievement. But here I am. I am going to college, and no one is going to stop me now.”
I believe her. And so should you.
We all hear about how young people struggle to get the education they need. We know they’re under pressure about going to college, paying for college, and choosing a path that will help them, their families, and their communities. But sometimes we underestimate the incredible passion and drive of our young people. I have seen that passion and determination make a difference in students’ lives throughout my work with Get Schooled and as I have traveled to middle and high schools in big cities and small towns around the country.
I joined DJ Khaled to recognize Carroll City Middle School in Miami, where attendance increased 10 percent this fall, because the students showed a commitment to getting to school every day despite the violence that plagued their community.
I joined Kendrick Lamar to recognize the students of Bethel High School in Alaska, which, despite its remote location (and believe me, it is remote!), transformed from a dropout factory into a school where more than 80 percent of the students apply to college.
I joined Problem at his alma mater, Compton High School in California, to recognize the students’ commitment to counteracting the stereotypes that the media projects of them and their city by working hard to get their education and make a difference in the world.
Recognizing that this generation speaks for itself, last month, Get Schooled reached out to 12th grade students nationwide through an e-mail survey and found that the Class of 2016 feel significant pressure and uncertainty about their future but are steadfast in their commitment to social change. And they believe their generation is already changing the world, by being service-minded in their communities, by being open minded about people’s differences, and by using their social media prowess to give voice to movements like #blacklivesmatter.
This is what Times Square Yearbook is all about: celebrating exceptional students, not because they are valedictorians or star athletes, but because they have a belief in themselves and a passion for making a difference in the world. This year, we recognize a student from Milwaukee whose brother’s senseless death by gun violence has inspired him to make music that shares his brother’s spirit with the world. We recognize a student from Baltimore who has a passion for using her writing to “spark enlightenment” about social and political issues. We recognize a young man from Massachusetts who has already channeled his struggles with homework and time management into the creation of an app that will help him and those around him. We recognize a young woman from Atlanta who aims to use her firsthand experiences in the foster care system to become a better advocate for others facing similar challenges. And we recognize two students from New York City who saw their classmates skipping school because their families could not afford to do the laundry regularly, and so created a nonprofit to raise money to fund “free laundry days” at their neighborhood laundromat.
These are the young people poised to change the world in ways that will make a difference. On June 8, I, along with Get Schooled and the Taco Bell Foundation, celebrated all of the students recognized in the 2016 Times Square Yearbook with a $1,000 scholarship to help them further their dreams, passions, and aspirations. Each of the students in the Times Square Yearbook is an amazing example of what young people can do to build a movement and make a difference.
We know that the Class of 2016 will take charge, create change, and make a difference. Tweet #TimesSquareYearbook and @getschooled with your advice for the Class of 2016 or just your congrats! There is no doubt we need their passions and energies with the challenges we face.