In a brand-new policy role, first lady Michelle Obama is getting behind President Obama’s goal to ensure that the United States produces the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020. And when it comes one part of that initiative—motivating kids in underserved communities to do whatever it takes to graduate high school and pursue higher education—her pitch is very personal.
Speaking Tuesday to sophomores at Washington, D.C.'s Bell Multicultural High School at an event that included Education Secretary Arne Duncan and BET's Jeff Johnson, she said, "When I talk about students needing to take responsibility for their education, I speak from personal experience." She recalled boarding a city bus at 6:00 a.m. each morning as a Chicago high school student, and realizing when teachers told her she was setting her educational sights too high that "it was clear that no one was going to take my hand and lead me where I needed to go."
When she began to apply for financial aid, she added, "the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] was my best friend."
At Bell, a predominantly African-American and Latino school where 85 percent of last year's graduating class went on to attend college, Obama was introduced by alumna Menbere Assefa, who, after emigrating from Ethiopia at age 8, graduated from James Madison University in May.
Assefa echoed the first lady's emphasis on seeking out financial aid. "There's scholarships out there; there are funds out there for people to get and make sure that they attend higher education."
Obama, who attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School as a first-generation college student after attending a magnet high school said, "I am here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story … The details might be a little different, but so many of the challenges and the triumphs will be just the same."
White House officials described the BET-moderated question-and-answer period that followed the event as a " listening session" in which the first lady and Secretary Duncan heard the high school students' perspective.
But students wanted to know more about Mrs. Obama's personal story, asking, "What were some of your most personal obstacles that you had to overcome in pursing higher education?" and, "What was the most rigorous part of being in college?"
She cautioned them about the challenges of managing coursework, maintaining a healthy diet, adjusting to a new atmosphere and silencing the internal doubt. In her case, she said, that came with the transition from Chicago's South Side to an Ivy League environment.
"For me, I had to get out of my own way. I had to get out of my head … I had to stop projecting negativity into my head about what my future could be. Here I am thinking, 'maybe I don't belong here' … I realized, I was just as smart as these kids, my voice was just as relevant, my experience was just as meaningful."
White House officials said Obama is coordinating with Secretary Duncan, who has been tasked with overseeing the president's efforts to increase the nation's college graduation rate. The U.S. currently ranks 12th globally in the proportion of people who hold college degrees.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.