First lady Michelle Obama, who is leading a charge to increase the numbers of low-income students graduating from college, challenged graduates of a D.C. college program to reach back and become role models in their communities.
“We need you working in our government, pushing our leaders to help every child get a college education no matter where they’re from or how they grew up,” Obama told more than 500 people gathered in a ballroom Thursday night at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel to celebrate graduates of the D.C. College Access Program, an organization created to boost the numbers of D.C. students graduating from college.
Obama added that it is not enough that the graduates beat the odds for themselves, but it is crucial that they reach back and help other young people struggling against odds to go to college.
“So many of you have stories just like these, stories of families who couldn’t support you, of communities where you weren’t safe, schools that maybe didn’t always live up to your promise,” Obama said. “But ultimately, despite it all, you chose to succeed. And that is the thread that connects every single one of you. It is your mindset, your fierce belief in your own potential, your unwavering conviction that you deserve something better from life.
The graduates before her, she said, were amazing examples of academic success. “If you all can graduate from college despite such overwhelming odds, then there is no reason why every child in this country can’t follow in your footsteps. Your shining success is a a powerful message to every young person in America that you don’t have to wait for your neighborhood to improve, or for your school to turn around, or for your family to solve all its problems. Instead, no matter what’s going on in your life, you can find a way to make it to school every day, to go to class, to listen to those teachers, to get the education you deserve.”
She told graduates that struggling against odds helped to shape them, helped to make them smarter because as they seek to solve new problems, scientists have found, they create new pathways of connections in their brains.
“Struggling isn’t a bad thing. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of growth,” she said. “So don’t ever, ever shy away from a good struggle. Instead, I want you to seek it out and dive in head first, because that’s what truly successful people do.”
“Take my husband, for example. You know the guy,” she said to laughter from the audience. “Barack Obama wasn’t born as president of the United States. He struggled for years to make it to the White House. And then, once he got there, he struggled even harder to create jobs, to get people health care, to help young people like you go to college. See, and here’s the thing — in a few years, when it’s his time to leave office, he’s going to start all over again with a whole new set of challenges. …. That’s what life is. It is an endless process of struggle and success, struggle and success.”
Obama explained to the graduates never to let other people’s doubt take them off course. She said that when she was growing up in Chicago she faced her own doubters.
“Trust me, I know what that’s like,” she said. “I grew up just like many of you. My family didn’t have a lot of money. My parents never went to college. And there were plenty of folks who doubted whether a kid like me had what it took to reach my goals.”
She recalled a story about a particular “wonderful professor” at Princeton who doubted her.
“Now, let me say this, I aced his class. I blew it out of the water,” she said to applause.
After the class ended, she asked the professor whether she could work with him on a research project. Her goal was to obtain a letter of recommendation for law school applications.
“Eventually I asked him if he would write me that letter. And he said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. But really, you’re not the hottest thing I’ve seen coming out of the gate.’ ”
The crowd laughed.
“I was stunned,” Obama continued. “Now, in hindsight, I appreciated the honesty, but it really felt like he punched me right in my stomach.”
She recalled at that moment, she made a decision to “do everything in my power to make that man regret those words. And at a point, I didn’t even care about the letter anymore. I knew that it was my responsibility to show my professor how wrong he was about me.”
For the rest of the research project, she said, “I worked my butt off for this man. I was in his office every day. I was sitting side by side with him, analyzing data like no one had analyzed it before.”
She did not mention the letter of recommendation again.
“Then, one day, the professor asked me, well, what are your plans for next year? And I told him — I said, I applied to law school. And, he said, oh, did I write you a letter for that?” she recalled. “And I said, yes, as a matter of fact, you did. He then got very quiet. And, he said, well, how are things going? And I told him that I’d gotten accepted everywhere I’d applied except for Harvard Law, where I’d been waitlisted. He paused for a moment, and then he said, I’m going to write you another letter.”
At that point, Obama said, “I knew I had won. Whether or not I got into Harvard didn’t even matter. I had shown not just my professor, but myself what I was capable of achieving.”
Obama, who went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, closed her address by challenging the students to continue to invest in themselves despite the tug of family.
“Now, there is nothing, nothing more important than family. And there will be plenty of times when you need to answer those calls and take care of the people you love,” she said. “But I can tell you that, ultimately, the best way for you to help your family is to keep investing in yourself. And that’s a hard thing for you to swallow.”
She explained she had to go through this herself.
“My parents were no strangers to struggle,” she recalled. “They were facing health challenges and any number of other problems. But here is the thing. No matter what was happening at home, whenever I called to see how my parents were doing, I always got the same answer, ‘Everything is fine, baby, just take care of yourself.’ “
She explained because her parents gave her the support she needed to succeed in getting good grades and eventually a good job, she was ultimately able to help them.
“And today, my mother never has to worry about money again because my brother and I can afford to take care of her for the rest of our lives,” she said.
Obama told the graduates that it is important that they continue to reach back and help others.
“By continuing to focus on your own success, you will ensure that you can keep giving back, not just to the people you love, but to the communities you come from,” she said. “By the way, that last part isn’t a suggestion; it’s an obligation that folks like us share. The obligation to reach back and give others the same chances we’ve had to succeed.”
Obama told them she would continue to advocate for more students to graduate from college. “I want you all to know that I’m going to be fighting for you, and I am rooting for you and kids like you across this country. I will be doing this work not just for the rest of my time as first lady, but for the rest of my life.”