Michelle Obama paid a visit Thursday morning to the District’s Howard University, where she surprised students as part of her last back-to-school season as first lady.
Obama spoke to more than 200 students inside a business school auditorium at the historically black college, answering questions and offering advice on succeeding in school and beyond.
“College was the most important thing I’ve done in my life, other than being first lady, having kids and marrying Barack Obama,” she said to laughter. “It taught me I could leave home and be successful away from home.”
She urged students to be confident in their abilities and seize opportunities to meet other people and try new things.
“Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?”
The students, most of them Howard freshmen and in suits, had no idea that they would be hearing from the first lady: They had been told only that they were set to attend a back-to-school event with Seth Meyers, host of NBC’s “Late Night,” and television personality Nick Cannon — who just became a Howard freshman at age 35.
They filed into the empty auditorium about 11:30 a.m. and were greeted a half-hour later by Amber Ruffin, the first African American woman to write for a network late-night show. She told the students that before they heard from Cannon and Meyers, they had to turn off their phones — an announcement met with gasps and groans.
Meyers, a graduate of Northwestern University, took the stage and introduced Cannon. Then he said he wanted to bring out one more guest.
“Everyone, give it up for the first lady,” Meyers said.
The students leapt to their feet screaming, giving Obama an extended standing ovation.
The visit is part of the first lady’s “Reach Higher” initiative, which encourages students to continue their education after high school, and her “Better Make Room” campaign to connect with students via social media.
Meyers asked Cannon why he had returned to school, given that he already has a successful career and children who keep him busy.
“I’m not here for a degree,” Cannon said. “I’m here because I have a real thirst for knowledge.” Students snapped their fingers in enthusiastic agreement.
And why Howard?
“This is the Mecca,” Cannon said to cheers. “HU!” He yelled. “You know!” the students called back.
Cannon took a microphone into the audience, giving students a chance to question the first lady, who grew up in a working-class family in Chicago before graduating from Princeton University and earning a law degree at Harvard. Obama and Meyers, who graduated from Northwestern University, offered advice to students for a segment that will air next week on “Late Night.”
Students asked what she was like in college.
“Kind of silly,” she said, but adding that she took her studies seriously.
They asked what she would change about her first year in college.
“I probably would have tried more things,” she said. “I would have taken more risks.”
And they asked what the first lady and Meyers learned about themselves during their freshman year.
“I learned a lot about hygiene,” Meyers said. “I was not a jackpot roommate.”
“It taught me I can do anything,” Obama said. She recalled that when she went to Princeton, people told her that she was shooting too high. But when she arrived, she realized that she could hold her own — a strength she still draws on.
“I still carry that with me as first lady of the United States, because there are people who think I shouldn’t be doing that, either, and it’s been eight years,” she said.
She advised students to choose a major they are passionate about studying and to look for internship opportunities. She said her personal assistants were hired because they stood out as White House interns. “My life is controlled by 20-something-year-olds,” she said. “It’s really annoying.”
When asked how to de-stress constructively, she advised hanging out with friends and laughing. “Laughter is a huge de-stressor, so make sure you get that in,” she said.
To which Meyers said: “One of the places to get that laughter is ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers.’ ”
And the students laughed.
At previous “Better Make Room” events, Obama has rapped with comedian Jay Pharoah about going to college and talked with basketball star LeBron James about why he cares about education.
Her visit comes just a few months after President Obama delivered the commencement address at Howard, whose many notable students included Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, and the award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates.