Nia Hill’s family was evicted last summer, just before the Chicago teenager was about to enter her senior year of high school. Her final year was supposed to be spent focusing on grades, preparing for college and basking in senior rituals and prom. Instead, she had to grit it out as her family moved six times, searching for stability and a place to call their own.
“It definitely humbled me, but it also made me realize that I’m very blessed. It strengthened me,” Hill said Tuesday at the White House, where she was among 130 college-bound students from across the country taking part in Beating the Odds, a day-long event hosted by first lady Michelle Obama to showcase seniors who have overcome personal setbacks and financial hardship to go to college.
For Hill, who graduated with a 4.3 grade-point average from her Chicago magnet school and will attend Howard University this fall, the experience was a bit surreal.
“It was just amazing to walk in the building and to think that I was in the White House at such a young age,” she said. “I was in awe.”
Hill had plenty of company.
The morning panel session was in the East Room, its ornate chandeliers and giant portraits of George and Martha Washington a world away from the daily lives of the students gathered there to meet the first lady. She entered the room like a rock star, greeted with whoops and cheers and a sea of raised smartphones capturing her every stride.
“I was one of you,” she told her visitors later, explaining how she grew up in a blue-collar family on Chicago’s South Side, had parents who didn’t attend college and had to convince others that she was capable of more.
“I was not one of the kids picked out by my counselor to go to one of the top schools,” she said. When she expressed interest in going to Princeton, Obama said she was told she was “reaching too high.”
But the first lady, who graduated from Princeton and then Harvard Law School, told the students that it was education that made the life she and her husband are leading possible, and she encouraged them to persevere. She also wasn’t above doling out some stern motherly advice, telling the students to take responsibility for their financial aid, ask for help, be organized and never ever skip class.
“This is grown-up time,” she told them.
But there was plenty of levity as well. In a rare mention of presidential unmentionables, Obama drew laughter when she told the students that she once bought seven pairs of underwear because she was so busy studying she didn’t have time to do her laundry.
Her delivery was a hit with the students.
“It was amazing to see how much the first lady cares about the youth,” said Glendy Hernandez, an 18-year-old from Manassas, Va. “She made you feel like you really matter in this country. You feel like you have a voice.”
Hernandez came to the United States from Guatemala when she was 3. She graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA and as a result of the Dream Act she will enroll at Northern Virginia Community College this fall, where she plans to study political science. Hernandez hopes to become a lawyer and says she will fight to overcome whatever obstacles are in her path.
“You just have to persevere and get through it,” she said. “Once you get through it, it won’t seem that tough.”
Also on the morning panel was U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr., who told the students how his mother died when he was 8 and his father four years later.
“It’s only because teachers and mentors convinced me to remain hopeful . . . that I’m alive today and sitting here today,” he said.
The made-for-live-stream event was hosted by YouTube personality Tyler Oakley and later featured a performance by rapper — and Stanford University graduate — Jidenna. Those choices reflect a White House that has fully embraced social media, particularly in reaching out to the sort of young people they hope they can influence most with events like Tuesday’s.
“We want to let other kids across the country see themselves in the kids who are here and to let them know that we see them, we support them, we believe in them because of what they’ve overcome already,” said Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
“These are kids who have lost parents, or they’ve experienced violence in their community, or they’ve experienced limited opportunities, and yet here they are,” Tchen said. “Just think about what they’ve been able to achieve.”