What Michelle Obama told high school students

First lady Michelle Obama gestures as he speaks to students about committing to education to create a better future for themselves and their country, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington. Edging into a broader policy role, Michelle Obama is joining President Barack Obama's efforts to get the United States on track to have the highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
o First lady Michelle Obama  speaks to students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Here from the White House’s Office of the First Lady is a transcript of what First Lady Michelle Obama said to students on her visit to Bell Multicultural High School in Washington D.C. this week. The First Lady is taking on a new policy role in the Obama administration: urging high school students to go to college.

President Obama set a goal several years ago for the United States to have the highest graduation rate in the world by 2020 (though the obstacles to achieving it are possibly insurmountable).

Bell Multicultural High School,

Columbia Heights Education Campus

Washington, D.C.

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Well, good morning.  How are you all doing?  You good?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes.

 

MRS. OBAMA:  Let me tell you, I’m thrilled to be back here at the Columbia Heights Education Campus.  How many of you guys were here when the President and I were here the last time?  (Applause.)  Yes, show — applause are good.  That will help me out.  That’s good.

So you guys have made some good progress, and now we’re back because we are so proud of what you all have been doing here, and we thought that this was the best place to begin this conversation.

 

So let me start by thanking Menbere for that very kind introduction.  She is a proud representative of what this school can do, and her story is one that we want you all to emulate.

 

I also want to recognize Mayor Gray, as well as Kaya Henderson, the Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools.  And of course, I want to recognize your principal, Principal Tukeva, and all of the faculty and staff here at Bell Multicultural High School.  Thank you for hosting us.

Of course, I want to thank Secretary Duncan for joining me today, as well as Jeff and Keshia and everyone from 106 & Park for helping to facilitate today’s discussion.  Let’s give them all a big round of applause.  (Applause.)

 

But most of all, I want to recognize all of the young people who are here with us, the sophomores here at CHEC.  And I wanted to come here today because you guys and students like you across America are at the heart of one of my husband’s most important goals as President.

 

See, when Barack came into office, one of the very first things he did was to set what he calls a North Star goal for the entire country -– that by the year 2020, the year that all of you will be graduating from college, that this country will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

 

Now, Barack set this goal because as a — a generation ago, we were number one in college graduates.  But over the past couple of decades, this country has slipped all the way to 12th.  We’ve slipped.  And that’s unacceptable, and we’ve all got a lot of work to do to turn that around and get back on top.

 

But Barack didn’t just set that goal because it’s good for our country.  He did it because he knows how important higher education is to all of you as individuals.  Because when the year 2020 rolls around, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in this country are going to require some form of training beyond high school.  That means whether it’s a vocational program, community college, a four-year university, you all are going to need some form of higher education in order to build the kind of lives that you want for yourselves, good careers, to be able to provide for your family.

 

And that’s why the President and Secretary Duncan have been doing everything they can to make sure that kids like you get the best education possible and that you have everything you need to continue your education after high school.  They’ve been fighting to strengthen your schools and to support your teachers.  They’ve been working hard to make college more affordable for all young people in this country no matter where you come from or how much money your parents have.  They’ve been working with parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders all across this country just to help you succeed.

 

But here’s the thing — and I want you to listen to this — at the end of the day, no matter what the President does, no matter what your teachers and principals do or whatever is going on in your home or in your neighborhood, the person with the biggest impact on your education is you.  It’s that simple.  It is you, the student.  And more than anything else, meeting that 2020 goal is going to take young people like all of you across this country stepping up and taking control of your education.

 

And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.  We’re going to talk about the power that each of you has to commit to your education.  We’re going to talk about the power that you have to fulfill your potential and unlock opportunities that you can’t even begin to imagine for yourselves right now.  And when I talk about students needing to take responsibility for their education, I want you all to know that I’m speaking from my own personal life experience.

 

Like Menbere, growing up, I considered myself pretty lucky.  Even though my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they never went to college themselves, they had an unwavering belief in the power of education.  So they always pushed me and my brother to do whatever it took to succeed in school.  So when it came time for me to go to high school, they encouraged me to enroll in one of the best schools in Chicago.  It was a school a lot like this one.

 

And listening to Menbere’s story, it was so similar, because my school was way across the other side of the city from where I lived.  So at 6:00 a.m. every morning, I had to get on a city bus and ride for an hour, sometimes more, just to get to school.  And I was willing to do that because I was willing to do whatever it took for me to go to college.

 

I set my sights high.  I decided I was going to Princeton.  But I quickly realized that for me, a kid like me, getting into Princeton wasn’t just going to happen on its own.  See I went to a great school, but at my school we had so many kids, so few guidance counselors, they were dealing with hundreds of students so they didn’t always have much time to help me personally get my applications together.  Plus, I knew I couldn’t afford to go on a bunch of college visits.  I couldn’t hire a personal tutor.  I couldn’t enroll in SAT prep classes.  We didn’t have the money.

 

And then — get this –- some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high.  They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton.  I still hear that doubt ringing in my head.  So it was clear to me that nobody was going to take my hand and lead me to where I needed to go.

 

Instead, it was going to be up to me to reach my goal.  I would have to chart my own course.  And I knew that the first thing I needed to do was have the strongest academic record possible.

 

So I worked hard to get the best grades I could in all of my classes.  I got involved in leadership opportunities in school where I developed close relationships with some of my teachers and administrators.  I knew I needed to present very solid and thoughtful college applications, so I stayed up late, got up early in the morning to work on my essays and personal statements.  I knew my parents would not be able to pay for all of my tuition, so I made sure that I applied for financial aid on time.  That FAFSA form was my best friend.  I knew the deadlines, everything.

 

Most importantly, when I encountered doubters, when people told me I wasn’t going to cut it, I didn’t let that stop me — in fact, I did the opposite.  I used that negativity to fuel me, to keep me going.  And at the end, I got into Princeton, and that was one of the proudest days of my life.

 

But getting into Princeton was only the beginning.  Graduating from Princeton was my ultimate goal.  So I had to start all over again, developing and executing a plan that would lead me to my goal.  And of course, I struggled a little bit.  I had to work hard, again, to find a base of friends and build a community of support for myself in this Ivy League University.

 

I remember as a freshman I mistakenly rolled into a class that was meant for juniors and seniors.  And there were times when I felt like I could barely keep my head above water.  But through it all, I kept that college diploma as my North Star.  And four years later, I reached that goal, and then I went on to build a life I never could have imagined for myself.

 

I went to law school, became a lawyer.  I’ve been a vice president for a hospital.  I’ve been the head of a nonprofit organization.  And I am here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story.  The details might be a little different, but let me tell you, so many of the challenges and the triumphs will be just the same.

 

You might be dreaming of becoming a doctor or a teacher; maybe a mechanic or a software designer.  Or you might not know what you want to do right now –- and that’s fine.  But no matter what path you choose, no matter what dreams you have, you have got to do whatever it takes to continue your education after high school –- again, whether that’s going to community college, getting a technical certificate, or completing a training opportunity, or going off to a four-year college.

 

And once you’ve completed your education, you will have the foundation you need to build a successful life.  That’s how me, that’s how Menbere, that’s how so many other students have overcome adversities  to reach our goals.

 

There’s another young man, Roger Sanchez.  He is another example of a CHEC alum who is working toward his North Star goal.

 

In fifth grade, Roger came to the United States from the Dominican Republic to live with his mother.  When Roger arrived in America, he could barely speak a word of English.  He often couldn’t understand anything his teachers were saying, so he decided to put a piece of paper in his pocket so he could jot down all the new words he heard, and then he’d ask his friends and teachers to translate for him.

 

He went to the library and poured through books and videos and cassettes to help teach himself English.  And after all those hours of studying and practicing, Roger arrived here at Bell ready to thrive.  And every day, he put the same effort into his classes that he put into learning English.  He joined the baseball, the football teams.  He helped found your Global Kids Club so that students could discuss world issues.  And last spring, he graduated with nearly a 4.0 GPA.

 

And today, Roger is a freshman at American University.  He’s majoring in international relations, and he also volunteers as a mentor.  He’s paying it forward.  He’s helping high school students just like all of you with their college applications and essays.  And I had a chance to meet Roger, who’s here today, and I’d like to — Roger, can you stand up if you’re in the audience so we can give you a round of applause?  We’re so proud of you.  There Roger is.  (Applause.)  Congratulations.

 

So every day, students like Menbere and Roger and all of you are proving that it is not your circumstance that define your future — it’s your attitude.  It’s your commitment.  You decide how high you set your goals.  You decide how hard you’re going to work for those goals.  You decide how you’re going to respond when something doesn’t go your way.

 

And here’s the thing:  Studies show that those kinds of skills –- skills like grit, determination, skills like optimism and resilience –- those skills can be just as important as your test scores or your grade scores — or your grades.  And so many of you already have those skills because of everything you’ve already overcome in your lives.

 

Maybe you’ve had problems at home and you’ve had to step up, take on extra responsibilities for your family.  Maybe you come from a tough neighborhood, and you’ve been surrounded by things like violence and drugs.  Maybe one of your parents has lost a job and you’ve had to struggle just to make it here today.

 

One of the most important things you all must understand about yourselves is that those experiences are not weaknesses.  They’re not something to be ashamed of.  Experiences like those can make you stronger and more determined.  They can teach you all kinds of skills that you could never learn in a classroom –- the skills that will lead you to success anywhere in life.  But first, you’ve got to apply those skills toward getting an education.

 

So what does that mean?  That means, first and foremost, believing in yourselves no matter what obstacles you face.  It means going to class every single day — that’s what I did — not just showing up, but actually paying attention, taking some notes, asking questions.

 

It means doing your homework every single night — I did — studying hard for every test, even if it’s not your favorite subject.  It means reaching out to your teachers and counselors and coaches and asking for help whenever you need it.  And when you stumble and fall –- and I guarantee you, you will, because we all do –- it means picking yourself up and trying again and again and again.

 

All of that is on you.  You’ve got to own that part of it.  You’ve got to step up as individuals.  Because here’s the key:  If you step up, if you choose to own your future and commit to your education, and if you don’t let anything stand in your way until you complete it, then you will not only lead our country to that North Star goal, but you will lead yourselves to whatever future you dream of.

 

That is my message for all of you today.  And over these next few years, I’m going to continue sharing that message all across the country and all across the world to students just like you.  We, with the help of Arne and the President and everyone in this administration, we’re going to do everything we can to help connect you to all the resources that are available to help you on your journey -– many resources that weren’t around when I was your age.

 

For example, we’re going to tell students about our College Navigator and College Scorecard that can help you find affordable programs that fit your interests, your goals.  We also want to make sure that you know about websites like StudentAid.gov, which helps you apply for grants and loans, and also provides you with a year-by-year checklist so you know what you need to be doing to get you to college, or whatever program you need to get to.

 

But I also believe that this conversation — it’s got to be a two-way conversation.  I know that you all have important things to say, you have important questions that you deserve answers to, and that that’s why I want to make sure that I continue to hear your stories as well as talking to you.  I want to hear about your dreams.  I want to hear about the things you’re worried about.  I want folks like me and my husband and your teachers and parents, I want you to tell us what we can do to help you get to college and fulfill your dreams.

 

So that’s what we’re going to do next.  I’m going to step away from the podium, and Secretary Duncan, Menbere, Jeff, and Keshia are going to come back out, and we’re going to talk.  We’re going to ask you some questions, you’re going to ask you some questions.  We’ll listen.  I don’t want you go be shy, I want you to be relaxed, okay?  And we’ll talk more about how do we get you to your goals, okay?  And hopefully, this conversation here will help students around the country.

 

So are you all ready for that?  You have questions?

 

STUDENTS:  Yes.

 

MRS. OBAMA:  All right.  Well, let’s get it started.  Let’s bring out the other panelists.  You all, thank you so much.  We love you, and I’m so proud of you all.  Keep going.  (Applause.)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 13, 2013