First Lady Michelle Obama Takes Up a New Cause: Getting More Kids To College

First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off her educational efforts with a speech and q&a with students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C.

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Carolyn Kaster/ AP

U.S. First lady Michelle Obama speaks to students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11, 2013.

First Lady Michelle Obama told the students of a Washington high school Tuesday that they must keep going to school after graduation, no matter what they want to be in the future. “You have to do what it takes to continue your education after high school,” the First Lady said during her remarks. “And once you’ve completed your education you’ll have the foundation you need to build a successful life.”

The speech amounted to a shift in focus for the First Lady, who has so far spent most of her public time promoting healthy eating and exercise through her Let’s Move! campaign, a family-friendly initiative that could appeal to all because it didn’t directly align with any Presidential policy. The First Lady’s newest effort, however, supports the President’s goal for the U.S. to have highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, the same year the sophomores she spoke to at Bell Multicultural High School will be graduating from college.
She reminded the crowd of sophomore students that she was once just like them—a student with working class parents, who later went on to graduate from two Ivy League schools. She completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University and went to Harvard for law school. She also recalled a conversation she had with a teacher in high school who told her she was setting her sights too high for trying to attend an Ivy League school like Princeton University for undergrad. “When people told me I wasn’t going to make it, I didn’t let it stop me,” Mrs. Obama said.

Sixty two percent of the students at Bell are Hispanic, 33% are African-American, and only 1% of the population is white.  About 85% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and for 34% English is a second language. The profile students at Bell doesn’t exactly match with that of the current college population, but in order to reach the President’s goal, the First Lady has to make sure that all students, no matter what their background, understand that they can and must graduate from an institution of higher learning. In June of 2010, President and Mrs. Obama visited the students when they were in middle school on the same campus, to promote her healthy eating initiative, “Let’s Move.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who opened the program with remarks on just how imperative it is for students to graduate from college, something that is set to be required for the majority of jobs by 2020, joined the First Lady for an open discussion with the audience, moderated by two hosts from the BET Network, on what college life is really like. Menbere Assefa, a Bell alumna and a recent graduate of James Madison University, also joined the panel.

Students Khyle Hightower and Victoria Carter asked the group about the kind of obstacles the First Lady and Secretary Duncan had to overcome when they got to college. And they didn’t shy away from reality, reiterating that students end up facing many challenges while in college, financially, academically, and socially.

But the message that the First Lady and Secretary Duncan worked hardest to get across was that often the students themselves are often their biggest barriers. “At the end of the day, no matter what the President does,” Mrs. Obama said. “The person with the biggest impact on your education is you.”