Remarks and Q&A by the First Lady at a Mentoring Event - College Immersion Day at Georgetown UniversityBy USGOV
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
2:25 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Hey! How are you all doing?
MRS. OBAMA: That’s good. Thank you so much. I am thrilled to be here. I hope you have had a great afternoon. You’ll tell me all about it shortly. But I want to start by thanking President DeGioia, not just for that kind introduction but for hosting us here today at Georgetown. And he does so much for our family; we’re neighbors. My house is right down the street, so — (laughter) — we often rely on the Georgetown community and we’re grateful for all of you for taking the time.
I also want to thank these fantastic college students who you have spent some time with, for giving you just a little taste of life here at this school. And I want you all to know that these students, everyone here at Georgetown, they’re not doing this just to be nice — even though they are very nice — that’s what I’ve heard; you all have been terrific. And they’re not doing it just because I asked them to, although I hope that helped a bit.
Everyone here who is hosting you today, they’re here for one simple reason, and it’s important for you all to know: We’re here because we all believe that all of you belong at colleges and universities just like this one. And that’s one of the reasons why we want you to spend time on these campuses. We believe that all of you have exactly what it takes to continue your education after high school, and to succeed in any career or any endeavor that you choose. And we really want you to believe that as well. I want you to believe that. That’s why we do this not just all across the country, but we have done mentorship sessions like this all over the world.
We want you to look around what is a beautiful campus. Don’t you agree? I mean, this is just a beautiful place to live for a little while, right? But we want you to look around and imagine yourselves walking around these halls. I mean, look at this place. See yourselves here. We want you to talk to these students and realize that you are no different from anyone who’s here. And it’s important for you to start out with that belief that you belong here. This is where you fit in.
And I know it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s easier said than done. And I remember back when I was your age, headed to college — neither one of my parents had gone to college; they were not college graduates. I do have an older brother who went to college. And there were people in my sphere who had gone to college, but my parents didn’t. Most of the people in my neighborhood hadn’t gone either. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and people were smart and engaged, but college wasn’t always the next step for people.
So there were plenty of well-meaning but misguided people in my lives who questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at college, particularly at Princeton, where I wound up going. So after a while of hearing their doubts and hesitations, of course, that fed into my own natural fears. I was naturally hesitant and not sure about it myself.
So when I started out at my freshman year at Princeton, I wondered whether I’d be able to compete with my classmates. And believe me, these were kids who had gone to the best schools all over the world. They were wealthy, they were privileged, and they didn’t go to public schools like me, many of them. There were just two other kids from my high school who went to Princeton. So I worried that I wouldn’t be prepared and that I wouldn’t be able to compete with these kids who had so many other advantages than I had.
But once I started attending classes and starting walking around on those campuses — that campus, and living in my dorm and meeting these other students, I started taking tests and writing papers, I found out that I could do just as well, if not better, than most of my classmates. And I realize that it didn’t matter where I was from or how much money my parents made; what mattered was how deeply I was willing to believe in myself. That was the primary thing that got me through, was sort of looking at my performance and saying, yes, I can compete. What mattered even more than that was how hard I was willing to work, because I did have some deficits coming in, so I had to pump it up just a little bit more than probably other students there. But I knew that what I put in was what I would give out. And that’s something that I want to emphasize to all of you today.
What you have to understand is that no one is born successful. There are people who are born lucky, but no one is born successful. You become successful through hard work. Anybody who has accomplished anything in the world — I don’t care where they’ve come from — they will tell you that is what they put in. No one is born being a brilliant writer or a scientist or an athlete or a musician. Those are things that you become through practice, through discipline, and by putting in the time and the effort.
So today — and we’ll talk more — but I really want to urge you all, we brought you here today so that you start to get into the habit of investing in yourself 100 percent in every single thing you do. This is something, the President and I, we spend dinnertime talking to our girls who are 13 and 10. You have to invest 100 percent in every single thing you do — 100 percent in your classes, every single one of them, whether you like them or not; 100 percent in your extracurricular activities, which means that it’s not enough just to be a good student — you got to be involved in other things, and you’ve got to be a leader in those things as well.
And the other thing we tell our girls is whatever you do, do not be afraid to make mistakes. I mean, this is the lesson I am trying to teach my fifth grader: Do not be afraid to make mistakes, because that’s how you get better. This is what this place is for. Education is about learning. No one expects you to already know this stuff. So by messing things up, you can figure out how to do it right the next time. So don’t use your mistakes as a point of embarrassment. That’s your job, is to learn.
My husband and I, again, tell this to our girls all the time. So nothing you’re going to do is easy, because if it is too easy it may mean that you’re not challenging yourself enough. So I want you to remember that what makes sense for your friends or your classmates might not always be the right thing for you. You’ve got to step outside of your comfort zones. You got to make sure that you’re on your path, and your path may not be the exact same path as some of your best friends — which may often be the case — so you got to find your path and make sure that you’re on it.
And I want you guys to own your dreams. So you got to figure out who you are and then own it. All right? The only reason I’m standing here today is because I own some level of excellence, in terms of how I thought about myself. And the same thing is true for my husband and everybody that I know who is working in this administration. At some level they bought into their own idea that they were worthy of something.
So this is the beginning of what I hope will be an important journey for all of you, that leads you right here to places like this. But it doesn’t come on its own. It comes if you and when you invest in yourselves. So I hope that you enjoyed this time and that you learned a lot about what this university has to offer. But there are thousands of excellent schools across this country. That’s something that’s important to remember.
You can get an education right in your own backyard, but you can also see the country and the world. And somewhere out there, there’s a college or university that’s right for you, but you got to prepare yourself for it. You got to be ready so that when the time comes you can perform at very high levels.
So I’m going to stop talking, and I think you guys are going to have a chance to ask me some questions and maybe share some stuff. I want to know what’s on your mind, how you’re thinking about this, what you’re afraid of, what you’re worried about, and what you want to know. I know there’s press here, but you got to pretend like they don’t exist.
And the other thing I tell my girls — do not be afraid to use your voice. So speak up. This is an opportunity. You’re not going to get to hang out with the First Lady of the United States all the time. (Laughter.) I wish I could. If it were my choice I’d be hanging out with you all all the time. So make sure you take advantage of these opportunities. And I think that Todd Olsen is going to join us to facilitate this part.
Todd, come on up. I think I have a seat here. So let’s hear what you guys have –
MR. OLSEN: First, Mrs. Obama, thank you so much for you inspiring comments and for taking the time to be with us this afternoon. As we talked about earlier, preparing for college and being in college is not a spectator sport. It’s about actively participating in conversations. And we’re honored to have the First Lady here for this conversation today. And I know some of you have questions you’ve prepared. And the first person who I know wanted to ask a question is Daria Johnson (ph).
Daria, please stand up and share — let us know what high school you’re from and share your questions.
MRS. OBAMA: Hey, Daria. Get your mic.
Q I’m from Freedom High School, and my question to Michelle Obama is, when you went to law school, what were your strengths and weaknesses? And how did you overcome them?
MRS. OBAMA: That’s a good question. That’s a long time ago. Law school, 1988. Who was born then? That’s so sad. (Laughter.) Oh, so sad. They weren’t even born when I went to law school.
Anyway, okay, what was my strengths and weaknesses in law school. I think one of my strengths was that I had a big mouth and I liked to talk a lot. That’s why mother said I should go to law school. It’s like, “You like to talk, just go.” (Laughter.) So I think that was one.
It’s good in a law school environment to be willing to use your voice and to make your argument and to get your point out there because, again, that’s how you learn. And I think that was something that worked for me. I was also open to trying some new things, so I got to work for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and we did public-interest law for underserved people in the community. And that was one of the best things that I did. So not being afraid to step out and try some new things.
I think one of my weaknesses in law school in particular was being able to get geared up for courses that I wasn’t excited about, right? Because in law school in your first year, you’re really taking a bunch of mandatory classes. So your first year is really not your own. You don’t really get to choose any courses on your own, so you’re trying a little bit of everything. Well, I like criminal law. I love contracts. Sometimes civil procedure wasn’t as interesting because it’s about the rules of law. So I had to find a way to stay pumped up and engaged even in courses that weren’t my choosing. And that’s what you’ll find in college. I mean, there will be mandatory courses that you have to take, and it isn’t until later in your years that you get to select the things and focus more specifically on the things that you’re interested in. So you got to be able to get over the hump of doing well in things that you’re not necessarily good at or not particularly interested in.
And I still find that to be one of my strengths and weaknesses — trying to do things that are hard, and I don’t want to do. I talk to my kids about this all the time. You got to get up. You can’t just be excited about vacation. You have to be excited about the actual school year, too. So I still find myself challenged to make sure I’m pumped up about things that I have to do.
MR. OLSEN: Thank you, Mrs. Obama. And our next question comes from Kiana Miller (ph). Kiana, can you please stand and tell us what school you are from and share your question?
Q I attend Anacostia High School, and my question for you is, which college majors do you believe that are up and coming that high school graduates should focus on?
MRS. OBAMA: I should hand these mics over to you all. I have to say I’m not as up on the exact right college majors, but I think — here’s my answer: That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education, and I value liberal arts education because you’re really getting a broad skill set. And I think one of the things that’s important to be able to do in life is learn how to read and write — write really well and articulate your views.
So if you’re planning on going to graduate school, if you’re going to law school, for example, almost any liberal arts major that’s pushing you into writing where you have to write a thesis maybe, a large research paper at the end of the year, that kind of stuff is really good preparation for law school. But in terms of specific careers, I think that the health care professions are growing rapidly. I think that jobs that deal with caring for the aging, good stuff. Lots of nursing and sort of those tech fields are good.
But then if you know you want to do something, like if you want to be a doctor, there are certain majors that are critical for that: biology, chemistry, the things of that nature. I don’t know if there’s one of the professionals here from Georgetown if you want to weigh in that as well, Todd.
MR. OLSEN: Mrs. Obama, I’d be happy to. And I think you shared some very helpful comments there. I would just add that in most college settings you have some time to explore, and you have the chance to test out some courses, to talk with advisors, to talk in a career center that will be there for you on a campus, and you have some time to decide on your major so you won’t need to settle on it the day you walk in the door. So you should feel a little bit more relaxed about that, but still explore colleges that seem to offer programs that are of interest to you.
Okay, our next question comes from Iris Ukane (ph). And Iris, if you’d stand up and share your high school with us and share your question.
Q Hi. I attend Wheaton High School, and my question is, how can parents who aren’t always available be able to be part of the college application process and receive all the information that other parents are given?
MRS. OBAMA: Is there a specific situation that you’re talking about, for you in particular?
Q Just like general meetings given at school and all like about financial aid, usually given at meetings.
MRS. OBAMA: Well, I think a lot of that is specific to your high school and how things are set up. But here’s one thing that I would tell you. The application process and the process of getting to college is like your gateway to maturity. And I say that because you’re kind of probably the best person to make sure that your parents are informed, right? Because you’re getting this information, right? So even if you’ve got a parent that’s working late or somebody that’s not available, this is like that step of where you’re starting to be responsible for the information that you get, that ownership over it, and making sure that that information has been filtered to your parents.
My parents didn’t know a ton about college and how to apply for it. So fortunately I had an older brother who had gone through the process. But by the time I was applying he was at college, so it was up to me to talk to my guidance counselors to bring that information home, to make sure that I knew the application deadlines, that I knew when my parents needed to sign certain things. So there was a part of me that really had to begin to own that because that’s really what college is about. You’re not going to be — your parents aren’t going to be as involved in this process, and they’re going to be relying on you to bring them into the process however they see fit.
I know that even in some colleges parents now have to get permission to get students’ grades, which, quite frankly, I don’t know. (Laughter.) It’s like if I’m writing the check, I want the grades. (Laughter.)
But I understand the philosophy that essentially you’re an adult. So that’s one way that I would answer that. But, again, I think you keeping up with what’s coming up, making sure you’re talking to your guidance counselors, making sure that you’re asking for the help and support that you need and your family needs and trying to find out what ways are there given any particular circumstances because things may be different depending upon the circumstance of the family or the parents. There may be some extenuating circumstances that your school or the college you’re applying to needs to know, and they’re not going to know that unless you share it with them, and then pushing them to find out a way to accommodate your needs.
A lot of times schools will do what they can to make life better for you, but they have to know what your issues are in order to be responsive.
Todd, do you have any?
MR. OLSEN: No, your comments are exactly on target. And as the First Lady was saying, I think it’s really important to ask for the help you need and to think about new roles that you can take on, push yourself a little bit to be the person in charge of steering the ship as you prepare for college, but always asking for that help you need. And in nearly every high school, there are adults there who are there to help you with that process.
So thanks very much, and very thoughtful advice.
And our next question comes from Eureka Black (ph). And so, Eureka, if you could please stand and let us know what school you’re from and share your question. Eureka is not here. That’s okay because we have plenty of other great questions so we’re going to move on.
Now, we’re finally getting one of the young gentlemen in the room, Darnell George (ph). Darnell, if you’d stand and let us know what school you’re from and share your question.
Q I’m from Wheaton and my question is, what’s the greatest adversity that you had to go through and how did you overcome it?
MRS. OBAMA: My greatest adversity? That’s a hard one because I consider myself pretty blessed, so I think sometimes I look over challenges — not adversities, but just as a part of life. I think it’s trying to figure out how to continually excel in environments that are not natural to me, going from a public school on the South Side to Princeton, which is a cultural shock — (laughter ) – in so many ways, or was.
One of the things that I think I still work on and I won’t call this my — this wasn’t my struggle. It was my father’s — my father had a disability, and he had multiple sclerosis when we were growing up, and I don’t know if any of you guys have grown up with a parent or someone in your household with a disability, but as I’ve grown up, I realize that if someone in your family is struggling in that way, everybody somehow is touched by it. So I think that there are aspects to my personality, the way that I see life, that is tied to his challenge and how he had to struggle with it and how we had to accommodate and adjust and make certain sacrifices to be able to help him manage through his life. And I still think that that affects me.
But I always try to take any adversity and turn it into a strength. And I think — when it comes to my father I think one of the reasons why I’m so motivated to focus on health and fitness and making sure that young people are moving and active is because I lived with a father that was once an athlete who lost that in a blink of an eye.
Now, my father boxed and he swam. And it wasn’t until his mid ‘20s that he was struck with MS, and he couldn’t run ever again. That was it. And I think for me and my brother you just don’t take things for granted — your health, the opportunities you have in your life. Because at any day, anything can happen.
So we try to live life to the fullest, right? I live life to make my parents proud of me so that they can live through me all the sacrifices that they may have made. Maybe the things that we accomplish, me and my brother, speaks to their triumph even if they didn’t experience it.
So we each have to find a way to take whatever struggle we’re facing, whatever challenges we have and turn it into that lightening rod that’s going to spark you to do more, as opposed to saying, well, I can’t do this because this happened to me or that happened to me.
MR. OLSEN: Thank you. And our next question comes from Norah O’Neill (ph). Norah, if you’d please stand, let us know what school you’re from and share your question.
Q I attend Yorktown High School, and my question for you is what advice do you have for those applying to colleges?
MRS. OBAMA: Advice. I think we heard some of it. Number one, do it. (Laughter.) College is good. As I was telling my daughter the other — college is like the — probably still one of the best times in my life, because if you think about what college offers you, is the chance to spend four years or however long it takes for you to get through — hopefully it’s four or five or something like that — but where you can live on your own and practice being an adult. And you’ve got hopefully your room and board paid for, and you’re around a bunch of people your age, your peers. And that doesn’t happen again in life, because when you work you’re with everybody, right? Where you’re living and you’re sleeping and all you really have to do is take some courses and read.
Me and the President look at each other and say, you know, if all we had to do was, like, go to a couple of courses a few times a week, that was a luxury. And you don’t realize it until you’re a grownup and it’s gone forever.
So college is a good, rare, unique privilege, and hopefully all of you view it that way and don’t take it for granted. But as you apply, do your homework. Research your schools and own your decisions — and by that I mean you should know more than your parent or your guidance counselor or anyone else what the schools you are applying to offer you, and why you’re applying to them.
Because going to college is also big money, right? This is probably the most significant investment that you’ll make in your life. And for me and the President of the United States, up until he wrote a book, our largest bill was our student loan bill. Our combined student loan payment was more than our mortgage for a really nice condo. So that was the biggest investment, and we just recently — we paid it off just a few years ago.
So it’s a huge investment, right? So you should know everything about this investment before you make the commitment. Is it the right school for you? Is it the right curriculum? Is it the right size, right? If you get a chance, try to visit these schools — and not everybody will have that opportunity but with technology many of these campuses have wonderful online tours. Take them.
Try to meet students who have gone to those colleges. Understand the requirements — how long does it take to get through? Know everything about these schools, not just the application process and when the application is due, but is this the place for you? What are the dorms like? Where are you going to eat? What are the extracurriculars? You got to know everything. And most importantly, how much is this going to cost, and what’s the financial burden going to feel like when you leave, right?
So you should know how much this costs — how many loans you’ll have to take out, whether you can get a scholarship. And if you take out the loans, know in your mind what is that payment going to look like every month? Because when you take out a loan, you will have a payment for a good 10, 20 years of your life that could be $100, $200 a month that’s part of your being forever and ever until you pay the loan off. So you should know in yourself whether that’s the kind of debt you want to take on.
Because private schools cost more than state schools, which cost more than community colleges, which cost — and not every institution financially makes sense for everyone, but you have to know that and understand that for yourself.
So I’d urge you to do your homework — and you have to do it. You have to know this information more than anyone else, and own it so that the decision is yours, ultimately. And the consequences, good or bad, are ones that you are responsible for fully.
Does that make sense? Okay.
MR. OLSEN: Thank you. And I believe Delmus Omanser (ph) has a similar question about what happens a bit later. So, Delmus, would you like to ask your questions?
Q So I’m from Wheaton High School. And my question is, from your experience, what would be the top five survival tips you would give to incoming freshmen in college?
MRS. OBAMA: Ooh, top five survival tips. Okay, so if I don’t number them don’t mess me up. (Laughter.)
Number one: Don’t procrastinate. All right? College is a practice of management and organization. It’s not just mastering the subject or knowing how to write or knowing how to do some problem sets. Your greatest challenge will be managing your time.
Because college is about — you are on your own. You get a syllabus and you get the date of the next exams, and then no one cares about you — not at this institution, everyone cares about you. But by not caring about you I mean no one is going to be dogging you to turn your stuff in, you know? No one is going to notify you that your stuff was late. It’s just going to be part of your — what the professor looks at when he gives you your D if you haven’t done the work.
So you can’t see a semester as, I’m free until the exams. Building on your work and just making sure that you don’t let things accumulate. And if you do that, college is great. The thing that messes up college is procrastination. And then you look up and it’s like, I had two weeks to do a semester’s worth of stuff. That’s bad. That makes for a not-so-nice experience. So that would be one thing I’d say, is don’t procrastinate.
And I would — the other thing I would say, ask for help often. And maybe that goes with don’t procrastinate. Don’t wait until the very end if you don’t understand something. Ask for help all the time, from the — just get used to asking for help. Whether you’re in classes or in — I think this is true for high school. This is true for you getting from high school to college. You have to always ask for help. You can’t be afraid of somebody looking at you like you don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t care about that.
You have to care about your own survival more than you care about being embarrassed because someone thinks you should have known something. That is not your problem. Your problem is getting everything you need whenever you need it, and doing it right away and not waiting. Because just like high school — even more so — the college experience is cumulative, so if you don’t understand something week one, you’re not going to understand it week three and then you’ll have weeks two and three to make up for. So you want to get help right away. And that’s true when it comes to your financial situation — don’t wait.
The other, I guess, survival tip is, do not use credit. Do not come out of college in debt from credit cards — from buying that stereo system, or those new pair of shoes, or getting that — going on that trip that you can’t afford. Do not put anything on a credit card, because there are so many young people who are coming out of college not just with tuition loans, which you have to have, but they’re coming out with American Express bills with 35 percent interest, and that will crush you.
So in college buy what you can afford, which for most college students is nothing. (Laughter.) You just got to wait on everything else. Look nice later. Get your hair done later. You shouldn’t have new nice stuff in college. That’s not the time to have it. Wait until you’re grown up with a job. Don’t use credit. That’s probably only three, but those are some big ones. So I’ll stop there.
MR. OLSEN: Some very helpful ones, too. So I know that Imani Robinson (ph) also had a question. Imani, can you stand up? And please share your high school and your question.
Q Hi, Mrs. Obama. I’m Imani, I’m from Anacostia, and my question is, do you feel more pressure being an African American woman also being the First Lady in America?
MRS. OBAMA: That’s a good question. I don’t think I’d use the term pressure, and I don’t think what I feel is unique to me because of my race, because let me tell you, I’m sure that every woman who has become First Lady has felt some level of what I’ll call responsibility. Because that’s what I feel.
I feel like I have — being in this role I have a huge responsibility to use this platform in a way that’s going to make a difference; in that way that I feel like I don’t want to disappoint my parents, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the country. Sheesh. That’s a burden. But I think that that’s a responsibility.
So I want to be good at what I do. I want to — I don’t want to procrastinate. And that way I apply the same things that I’ve applied in every aspect of my life. I feel like I want to have something to show for this. I want to look back and say I did something good for a bunch of people because I was in this position. And I feel a huge sense of responsibility to do that.
Because not everybody gets the privilege of serving in this role, and no matter who you are you only get to serve in it for four to eight years. So that’s not a lot of time. So I want to make the most of it.
But I think that’s true for all my predecessors as well. I mean, I’ve met almost every living First Lady, and I don’t think that anyone feels any differently. The women who — they have all been women who have served in this role — love their country deeply, and none of us were — chose the position. You get it because of who you’re married to, and you don’t get a paycheck or a title, but you feel like you want to make the most of it and do some good things.
So I think I feel responsibility. Thank you for that question. It’s like a therapy session. Excuse me, everyone. (Laughter.)
MR. OLSEN: Very glad. We can cover a lot of territory. I know that Adriana Carmona (ph) has a question as well, back to what’s happening in high school. Adriana, are you in the room and want to share your high school and your question?
Q I’m from Wheaton High School, and my question is, what do you think will help high school seniors move onto their college life?
MRS. OBAMA: What will help you move onto your college life?
Q Like, if you want to stay home and like, you don’t really want to go away? What do you think will be some helpful tips?
MRS. OBAMA: To help people who are afraid to go away but think they should?
MRS. OBAMA: You know, I use the carrot thing. I just sort of think, you know, you’ve been living at home for a while, right? Parents, they’re nice. (Laughter.) But, you know, see the country.
This is a — it’s a special rare time in your life. You’re young, you’ve got your futures ahead of you, there’s still room for some mistakes. Nothing is life or death, truly, in terms of when it comes to the choices you make about college. I mean, there’s a freedom.
So, you know, try something new. It gives you a chance to live in a new city if you — or live in a new state, to see another part of the country.
The other thing I encourage people to do is not just think about going away for college, but then, when you’re in college, studying abroad because that’s the next step. Because the world is big. It’s a big place but technology is making it very small, and we’re so dependent on other countries and other cultures, and it’s so helpful for our own individual growth to get some experience in other people’s ways of life.
Because we get so rooted here, we get so used to our comfort zones here, and expanding yourself and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zones and doing that when you go away to college. Sometimes that’s when you grow the most is when you’re the most uncomfortable.
But with that said, not everybody is ready to be away from home. And there’s nothing wrong with that, truly. Because not every — it’s not going to work, being — for everybody. Sometimes it’s more costly to go out of state for school, and for some people there may be just some realistic limitations. And that’s okay.
We talked about what — how do you turn strengths — or challenges into triumphs? And if you think you want to go away but you’re not quite ready or it doesn’t work out, all right, so what’s plan B? And plan B sometimes is just as good as plan A, it’s just a little different.
So there are going to be many students who won’t get to go away. They won’t be ready, they won’t want to, financially they won’t be able to. The right college may not be one that’s away. So make the choice that’s right for you but don’t base it on fear. Don’t do something because you’re afraid. Do something because it works for you.
And if it’s all just about fear, then push yourself just a little bit. Because that’s what life is about — hitting up on your comfort zone and then pushing just a little bit past it. And then you get used to the fact that, you know what, fear is something you overcome. Fear is in your own head, it’s in your own heart. And you don’t want to limit yourself for the rest of your life because you’re afraid.
Because there’s a lot of stuff to be afraid of. But if you get over that, there’s so much — you know, this is scary. Shoot, being married to Barack Obama — (laughter) — it’s like he’s got big plans. He’s always pushing us beyond our comfort zones, and I’m dragging along going, “What are we doing now? No, not this!”
So he’s — my husband has taught me about pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, because I grew up same community in the same house. My mother lives in the same house I grew up in, lived in; my bedroom is the exact same bedroom — the same pictures, same bed sheet. (Laughter.) And that’s my comfort zone.
But everything that I’ve done up until this date has pushed me. It’s been something that I should have been afraid of and probably was, but just stepped my foot in it and realized, you know what? I’m kind of good at this. I can do this. Lookie here, I’m ready to roll.
So sometimes I’ve learned that pushing yourself in that way can lead to great growth and development.
So you go away to school. You I know, you’re going away. (Laughter.)
MR. OLSEN: All right. We have one more question. I believe Lena Jones (ph) wanted to ask. We’ll see, we may have time for more. We’ll find out. But we know Lena had a question. If you could share your high school and your question, Lena.
Q I go to Murray School, and what would you like to leave as your legacy as First Lady?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, my mentees all know the issues that I’m working on. The things that I’m working on are health and nutrition, trying to get this generation healthy and fit. So I want to leave that legacy. I want to make sure that the next generation of kids grow up, like I said, for the reasons that I talked about, but also because we need the next generation to be popping on it on all levels, because the problems that we’re facing now won’t be solved in our lifetimes, many of them.
So they’re going to be handed over to you, so you all have to be ready. I’m serious. You have to be really ready. So that means you got to be healthy and fit, and the kids you raise have to be healthy and fit. So that’s one important legacy.
So if I changed — if I can be a part of helping to change the way kids view themselves in terms of what they eat and how they move and if they’re part of a broader conversation about our health and nutrition as a nation, if we really can change the conversation I think that would be a good legacy.
The other legacy, you know, really, is that — and something that I focus on a lot, is I want to make sure I raise two healthy, productive, positive, contributing daughters — because that’s my responsibility, is me and my husband’s, right? We brought them in, so we want to make sure that they’re good and solid, and sane and happy and all that stuff, and that’s on me. So I’m kind of counting on them to do that. So I do take that role seriously, although there are many, many other things that I care deeply about. But I have to put raising my kids up there pretty high, because that’s no one else’s job but mine.
MR. OLSEN: All right. Mrs. Obama, any advice you’d want to share that hasn’t come up in any of the questions yet? You’ve shared a whole lot with us already, but I wonder if there are any other comments you’d want to make.
MRS. OBAMA: First of all, just — I hope you guys had a good day today. I mean — and I hope that it shed some light on your thinking about yourselves and what you want in the future. I hope it did. And I hope that this isn’t the last opportunity like this that you search out and that you gain access to, because sometimes you need a little boost over the course of high school just to remind you what it’s all about, and is the sacrifice worth it.
But the biggest thing that I would just urge you — what I was saying earlier is, just don’t let fear guide you. Don’t let that be the guidepost. Because I know for young people, much of what you do or don’t do is based on what you’re afraid of as opposed to what you’re trying to become. Sometimes how we dress is based on worrying about what somebody else is going to think. Who we associate with is based on what we think other people are going to say.
Be proactive about who you want to be, and then surround yourselves with people who support that vision of yourself. And I’ve said this to a group of kids — I think I said it when I spoke at Anacostia — if you want to be successful you have to surround yourself with successful people. You cannot be hanging out with trifling people. (Laughter.) You cannot. Who you associate with defines who you will be in so many ways. And you can’t be hanging out with people who don’t share the same goals as you because that’s going to be tough for you to break through that. That may be another survival tip when you get to college, is choose your friends wisely. Choose the people you want to be around. Choose people who are into good things, who are working hard, who are focused on school — because I guarantee you, if you’re not, those other folks will pull you down. And that’s a conscious decision.
So make decisions based on the power of your own vision about yourself — you. You alone. Not who your mother is. Not what your cousins are doing. Not what’s going in your neighborhood. Nothing. You can make the decision to set your own path today. And it may be hard, it may require you to push and push outside of your comfort zone, but you have that power and potential. That’s why I think these things are so important, if you hear nothing else, is do not look at me and go, oh, that’s the First Lady of the United States. Look at me, Michelle Obama: I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My parents weren’t rich. I went to public school. There were kids who fought in my school. There were kids who got in trouble. We did not have a lot of money. We did not have a lot of resources. And yes, I am still a First Lady of the United States — and I went to Princeton, and I went to Harvard.
And if you want to do the same thing, you can, but you have to work your butts off — and you can do that. All right? That is within your power. Maybe nothing else is, but that is within your power. And that’s what I urge you to tap into for the rest of your lives. For everything you do, tap into that reality. And if you do that, anything is possible, truly. But if you start reacting on fear and worrying about what other people say, then you’ll get caught up and it’ll be really hard — that it will be.
But we have faith in you all. That’s why we’re all doing it. That’s why everybody is here. We know each and every one of you has what it takes to be sitting here or there or anywhere else you do. It may take you a little more time. It may take you a little more energy. But you have everything you need right now to be whatever you want to be. And if you start believing that and acting on it, then you’ll be good. I guarantee you that you will be good.
And just know there are a lot of people like me who really care. We really do care about who you become. That’s why we’re all here. That’s why Georgetown University opened up its doors, because everybody cares about you all. And that is true around this country. So just make us proud. All right?
All right, we got another — we got another question back there.
MR. OLSEN: One more question back there? Do we have time for one more question? Okay.
Q Hi. I know we’ve been talking about, like, school and colleges and stuff, but I have a question about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on. Like, what could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people? Because it’s like someone dying every day. Like, it’s just crazy. And you being the head of the States and you’re in D.C., something could come out to help these young people.
MRS. OBAMA: You know, this President every day is doing everything he can trying to get this economy back up and running, making sure people get work, trying to pass a jobs bill that put people back to work. And I don’t want to make this a political advertisement in any way, shape or form.
But the point that I made earlier is that the work still has to happen in the community level, and it starts with you. I mean, if everyone in every community owned — and if people — people have to have the resources, they have to have the belief in themselves. They can’t do it on their own. But the question that we each have to ask ourselves, and in particular, you all as young people — what are you going to do to change the dynamic in your life?
So when I say my legacy is my daughters, that is truly, even as First Lady, the — probably the only thing that I have truly direct control over. And I don’t even have complete control over that because they have their own minds. All I can do is guide them in the right direction and ply them, just fill their heads with values and expectations, and lessons and lectures, and just fill them up. And then I got to let them go, and hope that they stay on course, and hope that they have everything that they need to make the right choices in their lives.
So I still ask each of you as young people, you guys still have a lot of power in your own situation. So the question is: What are you going to do that you make sure that you got your stuff on point? And that then when you have an opportunity you mentor somebody else. For me, this is one of the greatest things that I can do is talk to you all and to give you the little bit of stuff that I give my girls each and every day. What makes my kids different is that they hear my mouth every day, drilling this stuff into them at every dinner, every — raising the bar high for them. And what I’m trying to do is raise that bar for you and then ask you to reach back.
How many other kids in your community can you help lift up? And you’re not going to be able to get all of them. But if you’re getting one or two, and each of you are reaching back in your own families and your own communities and pulling somebody along with the knowledge that you’re getting about life and how it works and choices and all of that — which means that you, in turn, have to be a good role model. That means you have to have your stuff together. Each and every one of you has to view yourselves as having the responsibility of setting an example, of being the other alternative in the face of somebody younger than you.
And that’s why, as First Lady, I do this — because this is all I can be for you right now, is just this model of an alternative, because there is an alternative, but it takes a lot of work and it’s not easy. And you will get your butts kicked sometimes, and you will be disappointed. And you will be knocked down, and you have to get back up. There will be people hating on you. You’ll have people talking about you. At every level, can you handle that? As you improve your lives, are you going to be afraid? Are you going to be afraid, and then retreat back into what’s comfortable? Are you going to keep surrounding yourself by people who make you feel comfortable but aren’t the right people for you to grow?
That’s our power. That’s your power. And then there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that. No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that. You have to do that. And you have to do it against some of the greatest odds. You have to get it in your mind that I am going to choose a different path.
So I can talk to you all, and maybe I’m talking to some more kids out there. And it is hard, and there’s a lot of work to do. But there are a lot of adults out here, a lot of people in this country who are trying to get everybody on track. And it’s going to take some time. So what do you have control over? Start there.
Does that make sense? Or am I just being — it’s like I can’t tell. You’re like Malia and Sasha — “Are you done yet, Mom?” (Laughter.) So this is an example of my house at dinner. (Laughter.) Like, I got a whole bunch of blank faces, like, do you hear me? (Laughter.)
MR. OLSEN: Well, Mrs. Obama, thank you so much for your leadership, your inspiration, and all your hard work. We’re really honored to have you here as a model and a mentor. And so let’s give a round of applause for the First Lady. (Applause.)
3:27 P.M. EST
Tags: Barack Obama, Education, Office of the First Lady, Speeches and Remarks, The First Lady, United States, Whitehouse