“My name is Michelle Obama and I am an African American woman.”

The first lady began her remarks at Wednesday’s symposium for the spouses of African leaders with a personal touch. In a conversation at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. with former first lady Laura Bush, she shared her personal success story and the important role education played in her life.

“There’s nothing in my life that would indicate that I would be sitting on this stage with a former First Lady and the most renowned journalist and every first spouse in Africa,” she said during the event, which was moderated by newswoman Cokie Roberts. “My parents believed in the value of education, even though they were not educated themselves.  And they pushed my brother and I to do the best that we could do.”

Wednesday’s discussion highlighted the value of educational programs for female students and the role African women and girls can play if they have “a place at the table,” Obama said.

“Because only countries where all people are involved can be successful.  When we look around the world and we see countries where half of the population is marginalized or left out, then we usually see countries that are failing,” Bush said.

During the hour-long conversation, Mrs. Obama urged leaders from African nations to empower women and girls by improving their access to education. “Until we value women and girls, we won’t tackle those other problems,” she said. “Until we prioritize our girls and understand that they are as important and their education is as important as the education of our sons, then we will have lots of work to do.”

Mrs. Obama noted that some 60 million girls, including 30 million in sub-Saharan Africa, do not attend school. “We are blessed in this country to have public education. To have opportunities that many girls around the world are putting their lives at risk to achieve,” she said.

“Young people [in the U.S.] have to own their education. I can do that because I believe it. It is my story. It is why I’m sitting here.”