Helms Ategeka was accepted to 122 colleges. His choice came down to his love of music

Helms Ategeka was accepted to 122 colleges. His choice came down to his love of music



CNN
 — 

Helms Ategeka wants to be a pop star. But when he told his dad he planned to pursue a music degree after his graduation next month from high school, his father wasn’t exactly thrilled.

So last fall, the Oakland, California, teenager took a different approach: He started applying to colleges. More than 150 of them.

Before long, he got an acceptance letter. Then another. And another. The trickle became a flood until there were 122 of them — along with some $5.3 million in proposed grants and scholarship offers. (CNN has viewed the acceptance letters.)

His father says he’s proud of Helms’ 3.94 GPA and had hoped his son would pick a career with financial stability, like medicine or computer technology. Or maybe Helms might follow in his own footsteps as a mechanical engineering graduate from the University of California, Berkeley.

But as he watched the mountain of acceptance letters in his son’s room get bigger with every mail delivery, Chris Ategeka’s hope dimmed. The messages on the multicolored envelopes beckoned with undeniable enthusiasm. “You’re in!” one said. “Our family welcomes your family! read another.

“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,” Ategeka says. “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.”

But how does an 18-year-old begin narrowing down such a massive list of options? And so began a journey that came with tough lessons on change and compromise — for both father and son.

Helms’ life revolves around music. At Head-Royce High School in Oakland he’s part of an a cappella group that meets every week to belt out covers of popular pop music. His room is stacked with CDs by Beyoncé, Prince and Bruno Mars. Before he starts college in the 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,” Helms says. “I feel the most alive and fulfilled when I’m doing something related to music.”

So when he started his college application journey, he had one key requirement: The school needed to have a strong music program.

Helms Ategeka: “I feel the most alive and fulfilled when I’m doing something related to music.”

He mostly used universities’ online portals for his applications, he says, which made it easier to copy and paste his information to multiple places. His father paid the application fee required by some universities. Helms spent many hours writing essays for different schools, although most were variations of the same personal story. In his essays, he highlighted his passion for music and his background as an immigrant.

A small group of schools, including Brown, Wesleyan and Colgate, rejected him or placed him on their waiting list.

But the much longer list of schools that said yes spans the country, from big state universities to smaller private colleges: Bard College, Drexel, Howard, Loyola Marymount, Sarah Lawrence College — and yes, UC Berkeley.

He moved to the US just before the pandemic shut down everything

Ategeka immigrated to the US from his homeland in Uganda in late 2000s to attend the University of California, Berkeley. He left Helms with his mother in the western Ugandan town of Fort Portal, where he lived until he joined his father in California five years ago.

Soon after Helms came to the US in 2019, the world largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. He attended his new school via Zoom and missed out on a big part of interacting with others and learning the nuances of American culture. As a result, he wasn’t sure his college applications would resonate or meet a lot of the requirements, he says.

“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. But I did not expect so many schools to say yes, so I was not prepared,” Helms says.

His modern drama teacher, Ricky Lapidus, is not surprised that Helms has received so many offers.

“Helms loves learning — he’s interested in other people as much as he is in grades,” says Lapidus, head of the Upper School at Head-Royce High School. “He is a deeply empathetic person and that’s how he approaches school — how do I learn more so I can understand others more? What makes him stand out for a college is a combination of his brains, sure, but also his joy and willingness to explore new things.”

Helms spent the past few months studying the websites and social media accounts of schools that accepted him.

He’s watched videos of their music programs on YouTube and TikTok to get a sense of where he fits in. And most importantly, he’s had candid conversations with his father about the realities of a career in music.

Helms and his dad Christopher Ategeka were born in Uganda and relocated to California.

“As an immigrant parent, I was thinking, ‘How are you going to pay your bills?’ But he’s a driven kid … and he used my words against me,” Ategeka says.

Through this process, Ategeka says he realized 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.

“I always tell him that he can be whatever he wants to be and can do anything he puts his mind to. And he was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I really want to do.’”

Ategeka says he’s slowly been embracing his son’s dream to study music and become a pop singer. He says he still worries about his future, because he knows how difficult it is to become famous enough to earn a living from your talent.

But he admires Helms’ determination and focus, as does his mother in Uganda. Chris Ategeka says his son proved he’s serious about a music career by getting accepted to so many colleges.

He is really highlighting the idea that he’s not a kid who is failing out of school or running away from home to live in the subway to make the music thing work,” Ategeka says.

“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. But this is my passion, this is my drive, this is what I chose.”

After months of research, Helms made his choice: He will stay nearby and study music at his dad’s alma mater, UC Berkeley. A spokesperson for Berkeley confirmed that he’s been accepted.

“I created a spreadsheet, and I wrote out the pros and the cons for each of the schools and really tried to weigh my priorities,” he says. “If I would like to be close to home, what kind of program each school has or doesn’t have, that kind of stuff.”

Watching social media videos of the schools’ concerts and other musical events revealed the quality and diversity of the programs offered, which helped in making his decision, he says. Videos of musical events at Berkeley had a certain joie de vivre, he says, which helped him see himself there. The school also has a wide variety of musical programs, including African music ensembles and a brass quintet.

As an immigrant, Helms is part of a growing demographic. Children born abroad or in the US to an immigrant parent accounted for 58% of the increase in the nation’s college enrollment between 2000 and 2018, a study by the Migration Policy Institute shows. “The face of US higher education is changing,” the study says. “Students are more likely to come from immigrant families than in the past.”

Helms’ new chapter comes at a precarious time for US colleges and universities as Berkeley and other schools grapple with the aftermath of pro-Palestinian student protests that have led to disruptions, arrests and debates about the limits of free speech.

But Ategeka says his son’s journey has reminded him to be open to new possibilities and ways of thinking. He believes Helms will find appropriate ways to be a part of difficult campus conversations.

“College is not about conforming to status quo … it is ground zero for training leaders who shape the future. It is in college that the young minds rethink the old and build the new for humanity and our planet,” he says.

Helms is excited to follow in his father’s footsteps at Berkeley, which has an admission rate of about 12%. Of the nearly 126,000 students who applied in fall of 2023, only about 15,000 were accepted.

But most importantly, he says, he’s looking forward to taking the next step toward being a professional musician.