25 May 2011, Christ Church, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom
This was not a graduation or commencment speech. The Elizabeth Garrett students were having an 'university immersion experience' at Oxford University.
Well, hello. How are you all doing? Good to see you.
Well, good afternoon, everyone. I am beyond thrilled to be back in the United Kingdom and to be here with all of you at Oxford University.
I want to thank Professor Hamilton, the Vice Chancellor of this university, for that very kind introduction and for hosting us all here today.
And thanks to Professor Hamilton and to the Dean of Christ Church College, The Very Reverend Christopher Lewis also, for hosting us throughout today.
I also want to recognize Jo Dibb. Jo, who has just been so terrific, is such a wonderful example that we just get to (inaudible). She’s the Head of School at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson -- we’re losing a mic -- for her leadership -- does that work better -- for her leadership and for joining us here today.
And I want to thank the Oxford students, as well, who’ve served as mentors today. Thank you for your time, thank you for making all of us feel so welcome, for looking after these beautiful young women. And thank you for your hard work and effort.
But most of all, I want to recognize these brilliant young women from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. My visit to your school two years ago -- and some of you weren’t there when I came, correct -- that was my first solo international event as First Lady. Truly, that was the first time I went off all by myself as First Lady. And from the minute that I walked into the door of your school, I knew I had come to a very special place.
It was clear to me that you all were so very special. I was blown away by your talent. You all put on a performance for me at the drop of a hat, and I understand you didn’t even really know I was coming. But you put on such a performance. And I was also impressed with your achievements. I was inspired by your passion and your energy. And I felt this strong sense of connection with all of you because in your stories I saw so much of my own story.
So I knew that the next time I came to the United Kingdom, I wanted to visit with all of the students again. And I knew that I wanted to visit with all of you in a place like this. Look around. I mean, just look at this, a renowned university that has trained so many of the world’s brightest minds and greatest leaders.
And I’m not the only one who’s excited to see you all here today. Students and faculty at this university were eager to visit with you all, as well.
And there’s a reason for that. It’s because all of us -- and it’s important for you to know that -- all of us believe that you belong here; that this is a place for you, as well. We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, you have the experience to succeed here at Oxford and at universities just like it across the country and across the world, because you attend a school that has been labeled “outstanding,” a school that’s preparing you for whatever course of study that you might choose.
I know that you spend each day with girls from many different countries, who speak 59 different languages in your school. So you’re already learning how to fit into a university like Oxford, which has students from more than 140 different countries.
And finally, by overcoming challenges in your lives –- by adjusting to a new culture, and learning a new language, many of you enduring hardships in your own families -– through those experiences, you have gained strength, courage and maturity that is far beyond your years.
And those qualities will help you succeed in school and in life. So in other words, all of us who brought you here today don’t just think that universities have a lot to offer you. We believe that you all have a lot to offer these universities –- your talent, your passion, your unique life experiences. And we very much want you to believe that’s true, as well.
And I know that from my own experience, that can be hard sometimes. And I remember back when I was your age, trying to decide which schools that I would apply to. And I remember how well meaning but misguided people sometimes questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university.
And when I was accepted at one of those universities, I had all kinds of worries and fears and doubts before I entered. I worried that I wouldn’t be as well prepared as students who had come from more privileged families. I worried that I wouldn’t fit in somewhere so different from where I’d grown up, or with people whose backgrounds were so different from mine.
But after a few months in college, away from home on my own, I realized that I was just as capable and I had just as much to offer any of my classmates. I realized that if I worked hard enough, I could do just as well as anyone else. I realized that success is not about the background you’re from. It’s about the confidence that you have and the effort you’re willing to invest.
Clarissa here knows that, as well. She’s one of our mentors here today. Where’s Clarissa? There she is. And she’s also a graduate of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School. And she’s going to be sharing a story in a minute, but I want to give you a little preview, because I worry that she’ll be too modest to tell you about all her achievements.
Clarissa, I understand, was a star student at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson with outstanding test scores, and she’s now Reading English Language and Literature here at Oxford. She also somehow finds time here to be an award-winning poet. She serves as President of the Oxford Poetry Society. And she’s one of only seven young editors currently working for a major international publishing company.
So if any of you ever start to doubt yourselves, I want you to remember Clarissa’s story, if mine somehow doesn’t resonate. I want you to remember that she started out just like all of you.
And I want you to know that you have everything you need to succeed at a place like this. You just have to work hard. That's it. You have to push yourselves. That's the only thing. This does not come easy for anyone. Everyone here, regardless of their background, got here because they worked hard. And you stay here because you work hard. But more importantly, you have to believe in yourself. You have to mentally believe that you can be here. You have to paint that picture for yourself.
And most of all, when you eventually get to a place like Oxford, I want every last one of you to reach back and to help others get here, too.
That's one of the reasons why I’m here, reaching back, even as First Lady of the United States, making sure that other young girls get the same opportunities that I have. Maybe that means mentoring or tutoring young people in your community. Or maybe it means keeping in touch with students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and helping them with their university applications, because many kids don't have the experience to even apply.
And the one thing is that you don’t have to wait until you’ve made it yourself. You don't have to wait until you’re big time. You can start the minute that you get back to school, because for every one of you here, there's someone else from your school who could be here, who won’t have this opportunity. So I want you to tell your classmates about the people that you met here today, about the classes you attended here. And I want you to get them all inspired and excited about what you’ve seen here today. You all have so much to offer. You have to believe that. And I look forward to seeing all of you fulfill whatever dreams you have, and I know they’re big. So I want to see you all in the future, visiting me somewhere around the world, doing great things.
So with that, I’m eager to hear from you all about what you saw and learned today. And then we can talk and talk and talk until they yank me out of here. So with that, I’m going to turn it over to Jo Dibb, who’s going to take us through. So congratulations, you all. We’re very proud. (Applause.)
(Clarissa Pabi and Silan Fidan share their stories.)
MS. DIBB: Thank you, Silan. Do you have your question handy?
MS. DIBB: Do you have your question handy?
MS. DIBB: Would you like to ask your question while everybody else is looking for theirs?
Q Okay. We waited too many years for the first black President. Considering how far women have come, how long do you think it will be -- take before we have the first female President?
MRS. OBAMA: Excellent question. I think we’re there. I think that the United States, I think many countries around the world are ready. So now the challenge is our preparation as women and our desire and willingness to step up and grab that ring, because we’re at a time when so many people just want good leadership. They want people, number one, who have good character, who are open, who are -- especially young people, because you all see the world in such broader terms, particularly students at Oxford, students who get to travel and experience the world. Their limits just continue to expand.
So our job as women is to envision ourselves as leaders, and then to prepare and be ready for a good fight and a good battle, because one thing about our success is that no one feels sorry, is going to take it easy on us, right?
Hillary Clinton is a fabulous leader. My husband had a formidable opponent in her in the primaries. She is a phenomenal Secretary of State. We have examples of outstanding women like her in leadership all over the world.
So it’s completely there. The question is, are we ready? Are we, as young women, are we ready to take that responsibility on and go after it and take the risk that go with stepping out there and being judged? And I think sometimes as women we can step back, but we can start pushing ourselves now, so --
Q Thank you.
MS. DIBB: You have the next question from Kristina.
Q Yeah, my name is Kristina, and I’m 13 years old, and I’m from London. And my question is, how is it different in raising your children now in the White House than before?
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, that's a good question. A lot more cameras. (Laughter.)
You know, my philosophy about mothering and how I feel about being a mother hasn’t changed. That doesn’t change with the house you live in and the job that you have.
And truly I call myself Mom-in-Chief. It’s not because I don't value a career or my education. I am glad that I had the education that I do. I’m glad I have the accomplishments that I have. But truly the most important thing to me is raising strong women and raising my daughters well, probably because that's what my mother did for me. So I think that is the most important job that I will ever have. And it doesn’t really matter where we live.
But my husband and I, the President, we’re very protective to make sure they get privacy and normalcy. But we push them just as we would at any time. Our girls have responsibilities. We want to make sure they don't take anything for granted; that they’re grateful.
The things I tell my girls are the same things I tell all of you. Don't be afraid to fail. Don't be afraid to take risks. Learn to use your voice now. Ask questions. Ask stupid questions. Be laughed at. Get it wrong. Trip, fall, and then get back up. Do your homework. Do chores. Have responsibilities, because what I tell my kids -- you have to practice who you want to be. You know, you don't wake up one morning and you’re suddenly who you think you want to be. You have to put some energy into it.
So if you want to be an honest person, you have to be an honest person every day, even starting at three and four and five, right? If you’re going to be a hard worker, hard work doesn’t just appear. You have to practice hard work. You have to practice effort.
And I also encourage them and try to help them understand that good things don't come easy. With that effort, that's where you grow, that's where growth is. Some of the best times in my life, when I’ve grown, it’s when I’ve done something hard, when I’ve overcome a fear. You won’t realize that when you’re doing it, but when you come out on the other side, you realize, wow, I’ve really stepped up.
So I push my girls. And -- but more importantly, I love them a lot. And that's what I feel for all of you. I want you guys to feel that in your lives so that you can be excellent, okay?
So it’s no different. Right?
MS. DIBB: Should we have the next question from Yasmin?
Q Hi, my name is Yasmin, I’m 14, I'm from London. My question is, as the First Lady of America, how do you feel -- how do you help others around the world?
MRS. OBAMA: Say the last part?
Q How do you help others around the world?
MRS. OBAMA: How do I help others around the world? Well. I think sessions like this -- I’m hoping that it helps others around the world. I mean, mentoring young people around the world, not just in the United States, is a significant part of what my husband and I believe we should be doing -- giving all kids a chance to have some level of excellence and opportunity in their lives.
And we’ve started doing mentoring. One of the things I mentioned in my remarks is that it is so important, no matter where you are in your life, to think about how you’re helping those behind you, those younger than you, come up. And that's not just an American notion. That's what we need to be doing around the world. So mentoring is a big part of what gives us joy and pleasure and makes us feel accomplished, because it’s not enough for us to just sit in our success and advantage if we’re not doing everything we can as often as possible to bring others up, and I believe that's especially true for women around the world, women and young girls.
So these messages of hope and possibility and education and leadership and service and talking about that and shining these bright lights on models of that -- you know, I want the world to see you all, because there's going to be a set of girls looking at this, reading about this day. And even if they didn't get to be here, there's somewhere, maybe in a small village or in a city somewhere, they’re going to see you, and they’re going to feel some sense of possibility, even if they’re struggling or they’re challenged. My hope is that your stories resonate, because they can. Don't believe that this experience doesn’t matter to somebody beyond yourself. It can resonate here, in the U.K., and it can resonate around the world.
So that's a part of what we’re trying to do. But we need your help. So we need you to be ready. We need more mentoring. We need more young women pushing these doors open and getting into schools like this and other places.
I mean, Oxford is one of the most renowned universities, but there are outstanding universities and colleges that people haven’t even heard of that provide an excellent education.
So we’re pushing you to dream big because if you can see yourself here in Oxford, then you can see yourself anywhere, right? But, you know, don't feel like this is the only place to go. You have to get an education. You must get an education. You must be smart. You must be prepared. And that can happen anywhere. That can happen in community colleges, in small universities, in small cities. So that can happen anywhere.
So those are some of the messages that we’re trying to push for on an international scale. But we need you guys to be ready. All right? You’re going to be ready? Okay.
MS. DIBB: Thank you. Seren, are you ready to ask your question?
Q I’m Seren, I’m 13 years old, and my question is, when you first met the President, did you think that he would go on to achieve such great things?
MRS. OBAMA: Absolutely not. (Laughter.) No, I’m just kidding. You know, that's the thing about visioning. So, honestly, when I met him, I knew he was special. And I wish -- I’m sharing secrets now, so we have to pretend like none of these people are here, because they’re writing it all down. (Laughter.)
I knew he was a special person. And it had nothing to do with his education. It had nothing to do with his potential. And I say this to young women: Don’t check off -- there are a lot of women who have the boxes. Did he go to the right school? What is his income?
It was none of that. It was how he felt about his mother; the love that he felt for his mother; his relationship to women; his work ethic. We worked together in a firm. He did his work, and he was good, and he was smart, and I liked that. And he was low-key. And he wasn’t impressed with himself. And he was funny. And we joked a lot. And he loved his little sister.
Those were the things -- and he was a community organizer. I really respected that. Here we are in a big law firm, right? And everybody was pushing to make money. He was one of the smartest students at Harvard Law School, one of the smartest associates in our firm. He had the chance to clerk for the Supreme Court. And I thought, well, you’re definitely going to do that, right? Only a few people even have the chance to do that. And he was like, I mean, not really; I think I can do more work working with folks in churches. And I was like, whoa, that's different. And he meant it. It wasn’t a line. He wasn’t trying to impress me.
It was those kind of values that made me think you don't meet people like that often. And when you couple that with talent, and he’s cute -- (laughter) -- you know, I always thought he would be useful. (Laughter.)
But I had no idea he would be President. I didn’t think he was going to be President until the night we were standing on the stage and he actually won. I was like, gosh, look, you won. (Laughter.)
But the lesson, particularly I think for women, in this is, reach for partners that make you better, you know? Do not bring people in your life who weigh you down. And trust your instincts.
You know, good relationships feel good. They feel right. They don't hurt. They’re not painful. That's not just with somebody you want to marry, but it’s with the friends that you choose. It’s with the people you surround yourselves with. And that's just as important as the school that you choose. Who’s in your life, and do you respect them, and do they respect you? And are you respecting them. Right?
And we as women in particular -- and this is such an important message -- starting today, you all have to be supportive of each other. You can’t be jealous, and push and trip, you know? It’s hard enough. So in your lives now, whether you like somebody because of what -- be kind to each other. Support each other. There's room for everyone to succeed. And that has to start in your lives now. Right?
So that's -- I think that's a key message for us as women. And if we do it to one another, then we’ll do it in the rest of the world -- is draw goodness to you, and that will help propel you. And I was fortunate to choose a good husband. But that goes for friendships, as well. Does that make sense? Okay.
MS. DIBB: Thank you. Mary, are you ready?
MRS. OBAMA: There we go, right behind you.
Q Hello. My name is Mary and I’m 14 years old. And my question is, during your studies, did you ever suffer from low self-esteem? And if so -- that you weren’t the First Lady -- who helped you the most?
MRS. OBAMA: What helped me the most?
Q Who helped you?
MRS. OBAMA: Low self-esteem, doubt -- yeah, I talked about that, because I -- you know, I wasn’t sure, because other people told me that I might not be able to do well in school, for whatever reason. I was always a good student, I worked hard, but I thought there was some magic that happened that made you really -- you know, I didn’t know that it was just plain old hard work.
So there were periods of doubt, for sure, and I think we all -- I have doubts today. Doubts don't go away. You just learn how to deal with them. You start knowing yourself and you become more confident the more successes you have, the more chances you take. You don't let the failures or the stumbles define you.
Everybody falls every now and then. Some people fall a lot. And what I realize is that we have long lives, if we’re healthy and we do what we’re supposed to. I’m 47 years old. So think about it. Whatever mistake I made when I was 13, who cares? So think about life as a long trajectory.
But at the same time, you don't want to make huge mistakes, because when you’re young, making big, big mistakes can last forever, right? So you want to choose wisely.
But the stumbles, the lessons learned, that's part of life. That makes you grow. But I came to know that. I didn’t know that when I was your again. I thought every mistake was the end of the world. “I'll never be able to…I'll never get into school, never be…” -- you know, of course, we all feel that way. But just continue to work. Put the effort in.
And I think that has been some of what's helped me being First Lady. First of all, it’s knowing who you are and being confident in yourself, because there will be -- Clarissa worded it -- said, pushing beyond other people’s labels of you, right? That's a big part. That's what we do to each other all the time. We don't even know each other, and we already determine from one glance, meeting, one line, one word, one phrase, this is who you are.
So you have to know who you are before that. And you live that reality. And you keep living it out no matter what. And if you’re a good -- have good character and good intentions, that that ultimately shines through.
But in the end, it’s hard work. And I like to work hard. And I like to do good things. And you practice that now. And believe it or not -- I didn’t know it -- it prepared me to be the First Lady of the United States. I didn’t know. I guess I’m doing okay.
But you know what? Every day we just get up and keep doing what we think is the right thing. Right? Thanks.
MS. DIBB: should we have Aneesah next?
Q Well, thank you. Hello, my name is Aneesah Siddiqi. What do your children want to be when they grow up? Because I know that you are the First Lady. Do they aspire to be as high as that?
MRS. OBAMA: The one thing about your children is they never want to be like you. (Laughter.) They want to be the opposite of you.
But the truth is they now know that they have no idea what they want to be. I think Malia tried to -- somebody asked her that question, and she started to answer, she had five answers -- this is when she was 11 -- and then she finally said, “I don't know. I’m 11.” (Laughter.)
And you might say that for a very long time. But fortunately they understand they don't know what they want to be. But they know they aspire to go to great schools. That's what they’re starting to do now.
I don't think they understand -- Malia understands a little bit more than Sasha, but, again, my kids see the possibilities, so they aspire to the best, right? That's what we want you all to do, because they’re no different from you. It’s just they’ve set their bar really high already. But what they do know is that with that high bar, you’ve got -- that means you’ve got to work even harder, and you’ve got to be okay with working harder. And that means you’re going to stumble a little bit. If there's one thing I have to convince one of my children of is, you know, it’s not about getting the A, you know? It’s not always about getting the A.
It’s about learning, and it’s about loving learning. And sometimes the A won’t come because you take a course that pushes you, right, and it’s going to be hard, and you’re going to, again, stumble a little bit. But if you always just go for the grade, sometimes you’ll bypass what's interesting because you might not get a good grade in it, right? And I don't want you all to start doing that. It’s too early.
Read, write, read, read. If the President were here -- one of his greatest strengths is reading. That's one of the reasons why he’s a good communicator, why he’s such a good writer. He’s a voracious reader. So we’re trying to get our girls, no matter what, to just be -- to love reading and to challenge themselves with what they read, and not just read the gossip books but to push themselves beyond and do things that maybe they wouldn’t do. So I would encourage you all to read, read, read. Just keep reading.
And writing is another skill. It’s practice. It’s practice. The more you write, the better you get. Drafts -- our kids are learning the first draft means nothing. You’re going to do seven, 10 drafts. That's writing, it’s not failure, it’s not the teacher not liking you because it’s all marked up in red. When you get to be a good writer, you mark your own stuff in red, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, and you rewrite. That's what writing is.
And if you come out with those skills, and then you’re confident, and you can articulate, and you can stand up straight and look anybody in the eye and say, “This is who I am. It’s a pleasure to meet you” -- that's one of the things we try to do with our mentoring program with young girls.
My message to them is if you can walk into the White House and meet the First Lady and say, “My name is…how are you?” and look me in the eye, then there's nothing you can’t do. That's why it’s important -- if you guys walked here, are sitting here in front of all these people, standing tall, asking questions, using your voice -- you have to practice that. (Inaudible) just show up again and again, and you need to just get used to it. The nerves go away, and you start relaxing into your own abilities. But it’s practice.
That make sense? So that's what my girls -- we’re working on that. That's baseline stuff. They get that stuff down, and then whatever they want to be, it really doesn’t matter. They’ll just be good at it, right? Whatever they do, they’ll be passionate about it and they’ll be good at it.
MS. DIBB: I think we’ve got time for just one more question and a very quick answer, I believe. So have we got Bisi?
Q Hi, I’m Bisi. One question I really want to know is what’s life like on a daily basis?
MRS. OBAMA: Life on a daily basis. You know, sometimes it -- look, I’m here. And yesterday we slept in Buckingham Palace. We had a State Dinner with the Queen. Friday I'll go home and go to soccer. (Laughter.) And go over homework.
You know, it can range from very mundane and normal to oh, my god, who could have ever have dreamed? That's what life is like in the White House.
But it is exciting and it is a privilege, mostly because I get to meet you guys, and I do want you to understand that for people like us, leading you all to a better place is the only reason we do this. The dresses, the cars, the horses, the carriages, you know, I can watch that on TV. But moving you guys and pushing you to see more for yourselves is all that matters.
So if the White House lets me do that, and we can use and we can open it up and invite kids in -- and we had a poetry session and we invited young kids in, just last week, from all over the country, and they talked to some of the most outstanding poets, and they wrote their poetry in the State Room, and then we had a poetry night, and Common was there. He’s very cute.
But everybody from poet laureates to hip-hop folks, right -- it’s been -- being able to mix up the world in that interesting way -- the White House allows you to do that. And it’s fun to watch and it’s fun to have the opportunity to do that.
So otherwise, it’s kind of cool. (Laughter.)