First Lady Michelle Obama Speaks on The Power of Education
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First Lady Michelle Obama Speaks on The Power of Education

Mrs. Obama:
Let me tell you,
I’m thrilled to be back here at the Columbia Heights
Education Campus. How many of you guys were here when the President and I
were here the last time? (applause) Yes, show —
applause are good. That will help me out. That’s good. So you guys have made
some good progress, and now we’re back
because we are so proud of what you all
have been doing here, and we thought that
this was the best place to begin this conversation. So let me start
by thanking Menbere for that very kind introduction. She is a proud representative
of what this school can do, and her story is one that
we want you all to emulate. I also want to
recognize Mayor Gray, as well as Kaya Henderson, the Chancellor of
the D.C. Public Schools. And of course, I want to
recognize your principal, Principal Tukeva,
and all of the faculty and staff here at Bell
Multicultural High School. Thank you for hosting us. Of course, I want
to thank Secretary Duncan for joining me today, as well as Jeff and Keshia
and everyone from 106 & Park for helping to facilitate
today’s discussion. Let’s give them all
a big round of applause. (applause) But most of all,
I want to recognize all of the young people
who are here with us, the sophomores here at CHEC. And I wanted to come here today
because you guys and students like you across
America are at the heart of one of my husband’s most
important goals as President. See, when Barack
came into office, one of the very first
things he did was to set what he calls a North Star goal
for the entire country — that by the year 2020, the year that all of you will
be graduating from college, that this country will
have the highest proportion of college graduates
in the world. Now, Barack set this
goal because as a — a generation ago, we were number one
in college graduates. But over the past
couple of decades, this country has slipped
all the way to 12th. We’ve slipped. And that’s unacceptable, and we’ve all got
a lot of work to do to turn that around
and get back on top. But Barack didn’t
just set that goal because it’s good
for our country. He did it because he knows how
important higher education is to all of you as individuals. Because when the year
2020 rolls around, nearly two-thirds
of all jobs in this country are going to require some form
of training beyond high school. That means whether
it’s a vocational program, community college,
a four-year university, you all are going to need
some form of higher education in order to build
the kind of lives that you want for yourselves,
good careers, to be able to provide
for your family. And that’s why the President and
Secretary Duncan have been doing everything they can
to make sure that kids like you get the best education possible and that you have
everything you need to continue your education
after high school. They’ve been fighting to
strengthen your schools and to support your teachers. They’ve been working hard to
make college more affordable for all young people
in this country no matter where you come from or how much money
your parents have. They’ve been working
with parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders
all across this country just to help you succeed. But here’s the thing — and I want you to
listen to this — at the end of the day, no matter
what the President does, no matter what your teachers
and principals do or whatever is going on in your home
or in your neighborhood, the person with the biggest
impact on your education is you. It’s that simple. It is you, the student. And more than anything else, meeting that 2020 goal
is going to take young people like all of you
across this country stepping up and taking
control of your education. And that’s what we’re
going to talk about today. We’re going to talk about
the power that each of you has to commit to your education. We’re going to talk about
the power that you have to fulfill your potential
and unlock opportunities that you can’t even
begin to imagine for yourselves right now. And when I talk
about students needing to take responsibility
for their education, I want you all to
know that I’m speaking from my own personal
life experience. Like Menbere, growing up, I considered
myself pretty lucky. Even though my parents
didn’t have a lot of money, they never went to
college themselves, they had an unwavering belief
in the power of education. So they always pushed me and my
brother to do whatever it took to succeed in school. So when it came time for
me to go to high school, they encouraged me to enroll in one of the best
schools in Chicago. It was a school
a lot like this one. And listening to Menbere’s
story, it was so similar, because my school was way across
the other side of the city from where I lived. So at 6:00 a.m. every morning, I had to get on a city
bus and ride for an hour, sometimes more,
just to get to school. And I was willing to do that
because I was willing to do whatever it took for
me to go to college. I set my sights high. I decided I was
going to Princeton. But I quickly realized
that for me, a kid like me, getting into Princeton wasn’t
just going to happen on its own. See I went to a great school, but at my school
we had so many kids, so few guidance counselors, they were dealing with
hundreds of students so they didn’t always have
much time to help me personally get my applications together. Plus, I knew
I couldn’t afford to go on a bunch of college visits. I couldn’t hire
a personal tutor. I couldn’t enroll
in SAT prep classes. We didn’t have the money. And then — get this —
some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting
my sights too high. They told me I was
never going to get into a school like Princeton. I still hear that doubt
ringing in my head. So it was clear to me that
nobody was going to take my hand and lead me to where
I needed to go. Instead, it was going to be
up to me to reach my goal. I would have to
chart my own course. And I knew that the first thing
I needed to do was have the strongest academic
record possible. So I worked hard to get
the best grades I could in all of my classes. I got involved in leadership
opportunities in school where I developed
close relationships with some of my teachers
and administrators. I knew I needed to present
very solid and thoughtful college applications,
so I stayed up late, got up early in the morning
to work on my essays and personal statements. I knew my parents
would not be able to pay for all of my tuition, so I made sure that I applied
for financial aid on time. That FAFSA form
was my best friend. I knew the deadlines,
everything. Most importantly,
when I encountered doubters, when people told me
I wasn’t going to cut it, I didn’t let that stop me —
in fact, I did the opposite. I used that negativity
to fuel me, to keep me going. And at the end,
I got into Princeton, and that was one of the
proudest days of my life. But getting into Princeton
was only the beginning. Graduating from Princeton
was my ultimate goal. So I had to start
all over again, developing and executing a plan
that would lead me to my goal. And of course,
I struggled a little bit. I had to work hard, again,
to find a base of friends and build a community
of support for myself in this Ivy League University. I remember as a freshman I
mistakenly rolled into a class that was meant for
juniors and seniors. And there were
times when I felt like I could barely
keep my head above water. But through it all,
I kept that college diploma as my North Star. And four years later,
I reached that goal, and then I went
on to build a life I never could have
imagined for myself. I went to law school,
became a lawyer. I’ve been a vice
president for a hospital. I’ve been the head of
a nonprofit organization. And 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 let me tell you, so many of the challenges
and the triumphs will be just the same. You might be dreaming of
becoming a doctor or a teacher; maybe a mechanic
or a software designer. Or you might not know what
you want to do right now — and that’s fine. But no matter what
path you choose, no matter what dreams you have, you have got to do
whatever it takes to continue your education
after high school — again, whether that’s going
to community college, getting a technical certificate, or completing a
training opportunity, or going off to
a four-year college. And once you’ve
completed your education, you will have the foundation you
need to build a successful life. That’s how me,
that’s how Menbere, that’s how so many other
students have overcome adversities to reach our goals. There’s another
young man, Roger Sanchez. He is another example
of a CHEC alum who is working toward
his North Star goal. In fifth grade, Roger came
to the United States from the Dominican Republic
to live with his mother. When Roger arrived in America,
he could barely speak a word of English. He often couldn’t understand
anything his teachers were saying, so he decided to put
a piece of paper in his pocket so he could jot down all
the new words he heard, and then he’d ask
his friends and teachers to translate for him. He went to the library and
poured through books and videos and cassettes to help
teach himself English. And after all those hours
of studying and practicing, Roger arrived here at
Bell ready to thrive. And every day, he put the same
effort into his classes that he put into
learning English. He joined the baseball,
the football teams. He helped found your Global
Kids Club so that students could discuss world issues. And last spring, he graduated
with nearly a 4.0 GPA. And today, Roger is a freshman
at American University. He’s majoring in
international relations, and he also volunteers
as a mentor. He’s paying it forward. He’s helping high school
students just like all of you with their college
applications and essays. And I had a chance to meet
Roger, who’s here today, and I’d like to — Roger,
can you stand up if you’re in the audience so we can give
you a round of applause? We’re so proud of you. There Roger is. (applause) Congratulations. So every day, students
like Menbere and Roger and all of you are proving
that it is not your circumstance that define your future
— it’s your attitude. It’s your commitment. You decide how high
you set your goals. You decide how hard you’re
going to work for those goals. You decide how you’re
going to respond when something
doesn’t go your way. And here’s the thing: Studies show that
those kinds of skills — skills like grit, determination, skills like optimism
and resilience — those skills can be
just as important as your test scores or your
grade scores — or your grades. And so many of you
already have those skills because of everything you’ve
already overcome in your lives. Maybe you’ve had problems at
home and you’ve had to step up, take on extra responsibilities
for your family. Maybe you come from
a tough neighborhood, and you’ve been surrounded by
things like violence and drugs. Maybe one of your
parents has lost a job and you’ve had to struggle
just to make it here today. One of the most important things
you all must understand about yourselves is that those
experiences are not weaknesses. They’re not something
to be ashamed of. Experiences like those
can make you stronger and more determined. They can teach you
all kinds of skills that you could never
learn in a classroom — the skills that will lead you
to success anywhere in life. But first, you’ve got
to apply those skills toward getting an education. So what does that mean? That means, first and foremost,
believing in yourselves no matter what
obstacles you face. It means going to
class every single day — that’s what I did — not just showing up,
but actually paying attention, taking some notes,
asking questions. It means doing your homework
every single night — I did —
studying hard for every test, even if it’s not
your favorite subject. It means reaching out to your
teachers and counselors and coaches and asking for
help whenever you need it. And when you stumble and fall — and I guarantee you,
you will, because we all do — it means picking
yourself up and trying again and again and again. All of that is on you. You’ve got to own
that part of it. You’ve got to step
up as individuals. Because here’s the
key: If you step up, if you choose to own your future
and commit to your education, and if you don’t let
anything stand in your way until you complete it, then you will not only
lead our country to that North Star goal,
but you will lead yourselves to whatever future you dream of. That is my message
for all of you today. And over these next few years,
I’m going to continue sharing that message all across the
country and all across the world to students just like you. We, with the help
of Arne and the President and everyone in this administration, we’re going to
do everything we can to help connect you
to all the resources that are available to
help you on your journey — many resources that weren’t
around when I was your age. For example, we’re
going to tell students about our College Navigator
and College Scorecard that can help you find
affordable programs that fit your
interests, your goals. We also want
to make sure that you know about websites like, which helps you apply
for grants and loans, and also provides you with
a year-by-year checklist so you know what you need to be
doing to get you to college, or whatever program
you need to get to. But I also believe
that this conversation — it’s got to be
a two-way conversation. I know that you all have
important things to say, you have important questions
that you deserve answers to, and that that’s why I want
to make sure that I continue to hear your stories
as well as talking to you. I want to hear
about your dreams. I want to hear about the
things you’re worried about. I want folks like
me and my husband and your teachers and parents, I want you to tell us
what we can do to help you get to college and
fulfill your dreams. So that’s what we’re
going to do next. I’m going to step
away from the podium, and Secretary Duncan, Menbere,
Jeff, and Keshia are going to come back out, and we’re going to talk. We’re going to ask
you some questions, you’re going to ask
us some questions. We’ll listen. I don’t want you go be shy,
I want you to be relaxed, okay? And we’ll talk more about how do
we get you to your goals, okay? And hopefully, this conversation
here will help students around the country. So are you all ready for that? You have questions? Students:
Yes. Mrs. Obama:
All right. Well, let’s get it started. Let’s bring out
the other panelists. You all, thank you so much. We love you,
and I’m so proud of you all. Keep going. (applause)

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