California high school senior earns 122 college acceptances, $5.3M in scholarships in pursuit of music career

With a 3.94 GPA, music-loving California high school senior Helms Ategeka has decided to attend UC Berkeley, his father's alma mater.

Helms Ategeka high school Uganda, GPA
Helms Ategeka, who has a 3.94 GPA, plans to attend UC Berkeley in the fall. (Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Bay Area)

A California high school senior was determined to prove his dad wrong when he began submitting college applications. 

With a 3.94 GPA, Helms Ategeka — whose life revolves around music — has received 122 college acceptance letters and $5.3 million in proposed grants and scholarships, CNN reported. At Head-Royce High School in Oakland, he participates in an acapella group that meets weekly to cover popular pop songs; at home, his room is filled with CDs by artists like Beyoncé, Prince, and Bruno Mars. Before he enters college this fall, he’s taking a summer trip to Peru with a choir to perform in churches and communities.

“I live for music. I spend most of my time either listening to music, making music, or out there performing,” Ategeka told CNN. “I feel the most alive and fulfilled when I’m doing something related to music.”

Proud but initially skeptical, Ategeka’s father, Chris Ategeka, hoped his son would pursue a career with a better guarantee of financial stability, such as medicine or computer technology, or even mechanical engineering, his own profession.

“He’s so confident that music is what he wants to do, it would be a disservice for me to try to guide him otherwise … that’s why he applied to a gazillion colleges to prove a point,” the elder Ategeka explained. “I told him, ‘You want to be a musician? It takes a lot of hard work.’ And his reaction was, ‘I’ll use my determination to do this to show you how hard I can work.'”

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The teenager’s determination to pursue music led him to apply to numerous colleges to prove he was up to the challenge. He spent countless hours writing essays highlighting his passion for music and his immigrant background. 

The student, who moved to the U.S. from Uganda in 2019 to be with his father, faced challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, attending his new school via Zoom and missing out on in-person interactions. Despite trepidations, he diligently followed up on his applications, ensuring they were complete and well-crafted. To make an informed decision, he spent months researching the websites and social media accounts of the schools that accepted him, watching videos of their music programs on YouTube and TikTok, and having candid discussions with his father about the realities of a music career.

Although he received some rejections and waitlists from Brown, Wesleyan, and Colgate, many schools, including Bard, Drexel, Howard, Loyola Marymount, Sarah Lawrence College, and University of California, Berkeley, readily accepted him.

“I gave it my all with the application process. I reached out to the schools to make sure that they’ve received my application and made sure I gave my essays my best shot,” he said. “But I did not expect so many schools to say yes, so I was not prepared.”

Eventually, he decided to stay nearby and study music at his dad’s alma mater, UC Berkeley. Watching videos of Berkeley’s musical events, he was impressed by the quality and diversity of the programs, including African music ensembles and a brass quintet.

The younger Ategeka’s story is part of a trend, with children from immigrant families accounting for a significant portion of the increase in U.S. college enrollment between 2000 and 2018, according to a Migration Policy Institute study. “The face of US higher education is changing,” the study notes, highlighting the growing presence of students from immigrant backgrounds.

Excited to follow in his father’s footsteps at Berkeley, which has a competitive admission rate of about 12%, Helms is also eager to take the next step toward a professional music career. While still concerned about the challenges of earning a living in music, his father admires his son’s determination and focus. 

“He’s sent the message that, ‘I know I’m smart. I got the grades. I can get into college. I can do whatever I want,'” said Chris Ategeka. “But this is my passion, this is my drive, this is what I chose.”