This young man accepted into 122 colleges with $5.3m in scholarships wants to be a pop star

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 23, 2024 5:48 AM EDT

When Helms Ategeka told his father he planned on pursuing a music degree after graduating from high school, his father was not keen on the idea. He hoped his son would choose a career with financial stability such as medicine or computer technology or even follow in his own footsteps and become a mechanical engineering. The aspiring pop star instead took a different approach and started applying to a series of colleges. Ategeka has since received 122 college acceptances and $5.3 million in proposed grants and scholarship offers.

“I gave it my all with the application process. I reached out to the schools to make sure that they received my application and made sure I gave my essays my best shot. But I did not expect so many schools to say yes, so I was not prepared,” Ategeka said about getting accepted to 122 schools.

His father, Chris immigrated to the US from Uganda in the late 2000s to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Ategeka joined his father in California five years ago. Soon after moving to the US, the coronavirus pandemic struck and he had to attend his new school via Zoom. He consequently missed out on a big part of interacting with others and learning the nuances of American culture. The people around Ategeka helped him navigate the cultural differences between the two countries.

Ategeka has been singing for as long as he can remember. His life revolves around music and he spends most of his time listening to music, making music, or performing. His room is stacked with CDs by Beyoncé, Prince and Bruno Mars. At Head-Royce High School, a private school in Oakland, Ategeka is part of an acapella group that meets weekly to perform covers of popular pop music. This summer, he will be taking a trip to Peru with a choir to perform in churches and communities.

“It gives me confidence in everything I’ve tried, in all the academic realms I’m interested in. I definitely always come back to music and singing. That’s sort of my safe haven,” Ategeka explained the importance of music to his life.

Despite reservations from his father, Ategeka was intent on studying music. He sought a school with a strong music program and applied to nearly 160 schools in total to find the best fit. He spent many hours writing essays about his personal story, highlighting his passion for music and immigrant background. His nearly 10 extracurriculars, ranging from choir to theater to starting his own club, along with his 3.9 GPA set him apart. Ategeka did not pick a top choice while applying due to fear of disappointment.

Although some schools, including Brown, Wesleyan, and Colgate, rejected him or placed him on their waiting list, the list of those who said yes is much longer. The acceptance list spans the country, from big state universities to smaller private colleges such as  Bard College, Drexel, Howard, Loyola Marymount, Sarah Lawrence College, and UC Berkeley.

Ategeka has spent the past few months studying the websites and social media accounts of schools that accepted him. He watched videos of their music programs on YouTube and TikTok to gauge whether he would fit in. He also created a spreadsheet, writing out the pros and the cons for each of the schools in lieu of his priorities. After months of intense research, Ategeka decided to major in music and minor in global studies at his dad’s alma mater, UC Berkeley.

His father has slowly been embracing his Ategeka’s dream to study music and become a pop singer. The entire process has made him realize that he was viewing his son’s academic quest through what he describes as an “African immigrant mentality” that prioritizes certain lucrative careers as markers of success. He still worries about his future as he knows it is difficult to become famous enough to earn a living from one’s talent. By getting accepted to so many colleges, Ategeka has proved to his father that he is serious about a music career.

“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. 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,” Ategeka’s father said about his son’s passion for music.