First lady Michelle Obama knows how fortunate she was to go to college, as her parents were never educated beyond high school.
In the East Room of the White House Thursday, Mrs. Obama informed the Beating the Odds Summit how education — combined with old-fashioned American elbow grease — is the recipe for success.
“Hard work is the key to everything that you’re going to do, and to make sure you finish your education past high school,” Mrs. Obama told the summit audience of high school students from around the nation. “Our goal is to give our kids the tools so that we can make education cool again.”
The event was staged as part of Mrs. Obama’s Reach Higher initiative. According to its website, the first lady’s program aims to “inspire every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school, whether at a professional training program, a community college, or a four-year college or university.”
Mrs. Obama welcomed over 130 college-bound high school students to the daylong event. The students represented a diverse mix of young Americans from around the country. The focus of the summit is on providing young people the tools and mentorships they need to transition from high school into college and the workforce.
Thursday’s panel discussion included R&B artist Wale, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Manuel Contreras, a senior at Brown University. The panel was moderated by E! News co-anchor Terrence Jenkins.
“Isn’t this cool?” Mr. Jenkins asked of the crowd.
Mr. Jenkins attended North Carolina A&T State University before embarking on his media career with BET and E!.
“The communications classes I took are the same ones that prepared me for my career now,” Mr. Jenkins said. “I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for those classes.”
Wale, a rapper from the District, was born in America to Nigerian parents. Even in the 21st century, when computer programs allow anyone to record music at home, the artist nonetheless stressed the need for higher education.
“Even in my profession now, a lot of us went to school,” he said. “And guys like me who went to college are applying what we learned in school in our profession.”
Mr. Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, made the audience laugh when he said he was “still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.” Mr. Duncan then related his childhood dreams of playing in the NBA. In high school he attended a summer basketball camp, where the program’s coach told the 100 young athletes directly: “‘If you’re lucky, one of you of you will got to the NBA.’ He said, ‘Chase that dream, but get an education.’”
Mr. Contreras, the Brown senior, is a first-generation Mexican-American whose parents instilled in him the value of education. They told him, “In this country, if you work really hard, all of this can be yours,” Mr. Contreras said.
“So many of us don’t have voices in this country. By getting an education, we speak truth to power, truth to those experiences,” Mr. Contreras said.
He also talked about feeling a sense of alienation both when he first arrived at Brown as well as when he would return home — with a foot tentatively in his childhood and college lives but not necessarily belonging to either. Two of his Brown classmates started a student-administrator network, which he said helped his maturation process.
“I’d never talked with someone with a Ph.D.,” Mr. Contreras said. “Networks are really communities. I want to stop building networks and start building communities — a community you reach out [to] for help, you share things with.”
Mrs. Obama stressed that the best thing a young person can do is ask for help and seek out mentors
“You have to sort of develop that maturity to ask those questions,” she said. “If you’re feeling like you didn’t understand what that professor said, chances are he didn’t make it clear. You’ve got to reach out and find the tutoring and support networks that are going to give you that place to feel a sense of home.
“I think that was what saved me. I found what was a substitute for home, a place where I could just be Michelle Robinson.”
Mrs. Obama related how even she seeks out the council of her own mother, Marian Shields Robinson, who lives with the first family in the White House.
“Some days I’m just like, ‘Mom, help me!’” Mrs. Obama said.
Wale added that college taught him how to be both self-sufficient and to be his own boss, which, for a musical artist, can require a great deal of discipline.
“The bad thing about being your own boss is you have to wake yourself up,” he said. “You’re not going to get fired, but you might miss an opportunity. College for me was essentially taking the training wheels off my life.”
Mr. Duncan and Mrs. Obama stressed the need to continue to invest in education and afterschool programs, but, ultimately, it is up to each young person to chase his or her own dream and find direction.
“The only person who can take care of you is you,” Mrs. Obama said. “Hard work is at the core of everything. And if it’s too easy, then it’s not hard work.”
Mrs. Obama pointed to her husband, President Obama, who, when he is not working on the business of the country, is constantly reading and writing.
She also told the students that failure is as important as success in that it provides opportunities for even greater learning.
“Each and every one of us on this stage has failed in some big, horrible, embarrassing way,” Mrs. Obama said. “And I’m sure it’s gonna happen again. I tell my kids all the time ‘Do not be afraid to fail.’ Get up, figure out what went wrong, and go back at it again.”