LONDON — Michelle Obama returned Tuesday to the city that helped define her role as first lady.
Six years ago, Obama gave an emotional speech to a rapturous audience of girls from a diverse and deprived area of north London at a time when she was struggling to find a mission to match her newly elevated profile.
She later told aides that her connection with the students taught her that her life story — from working-class roots on the south side of Chicago to the White House — could resonate as a force for positive change across the globe.
Obama was back at a London school Tuesday, this time to promote a recently announced White House initiative on female education, Let Girls Learn, that the 51-year-old first lady said was inspired in part by that 2009 visit.
And once again, the Harvard- and Princeton-educated lawyer spoke in highly personal and passionate terms to an audience of girls who, like her decades ago, have achieved academic success despite modest upbringings.
“In so many ways,” she told the students, “your story is my story.”
Growing up in a cramped apartment, sleeping in a room she shared with her older brother, she said she never could have dreamed of running a nongovernmental organization, becoming a hospital executive or living in the White House as first lady.
“Those kinds of achievements seemed totally out of reach when I was growing up. I was just a working-class kid,” she said. “The fact that I was a girl and I was black — that certainly didn’t help things, either.”
But support from her family and a quality e ducation, she said, made the difference. She implored the students, the majority of whom were Muslim, to overcome their own obstacles — including a society that sometimes can’t “look beyond your headscarf.”
“With an education from this amazing school, you have everything you need to rise above all the noise and fulfill every last one of your dreams,” she said.
The Mulberry School for Girls, in east London’s Tower Hamlets neighborhood, is made up primarily of students from low-income Bangladeshi immigrant families. More than three-quarters qualify for additional state assistance, including free meals. But the school consistently receives outstanding marks from the government’s tough-minded inspectors, with more than 80 percent of students going on to a university.
In that way it is similar to north London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, which Obama visited in 2009. She has kept in touch with some of the students there, meeting them during a 2011 visit to Oxford and inviting them to the White House in 2012.
The first lady, who is popular in Britain, has already pushed the Let Girls Learn campaign in Japan and Cambodia. The program is aimed primarily at girls in the developing world, some 62 million of whom are not in school. As part of an effort to reduce that number, Obama announced a $180 million partnership between U.S. and British international aid agencies to support female education in Congo. Officials said the program will benefit 755,000 girls over the next five years.
British officials are hosting Obama at a time when the country has scaled back its global engagement, cutting military spending and playing a low-key role in crises from Ukraine to the Middle East. Prime Minister David Cameron has, however, steadfastly protected foreign aid budgets, and the first lady’s visit is seen as helping to highlight the role that international assistance can play in expanding access to education.
In addition to her school appearance, Obama on Tuesday visited Cameron and his wife, Samantha, at 10 Downing Street. She also sipped tea with Prince Harry, fifth in line to the British throne, at Kensington Palace.
Obama is traveling with her teenage daughters, Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson. All three generations of the family will travel Wednesday to Italy, where the first lady will represent the United States at the Milan Expo, a world’s-fair-style event. The gathering’s theme is global food security, and Obama is expected to use her appearance to promote her healthier-living initiative, Let’s Move.
She is also scheduled to visit a U.S. Army garrison in Vicenza, Italy, where she will meet with soldiers and their families.