Michelle Obama Inspires First Generation College Students

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By Micha Green, AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor, mgreen@54.204.251.142

It was a rainy Tuesday morning; yet the Howard University School of Business was filled with beaming, bright first generation college students ready to learn what it takes to thrive from someone who had walked in their shoes- former First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) Michelle Obama.  Celebrating its fifth year, the Reach Higher 2019 Beating the Odds Summit brought out the former FLOTUS, mentors and students for a full day of candid conversations and workshops surrounding the plights and pathways to success for first generation college students.

“I just want to start by saying this is a passion for me, because, as I always say, I see myself in you all. I was where you all were,” Obama told the audience of 90 students.

Ninety students convened for the fifth annual Reach Higher 2019 Beating the Odds Summit at Howard University School of Business on July 23. (Photo by Micha Green)

While her older brother preceded her by a couple years at Princeton University, Obama was part of the first generation of her family to go to college.  After practically having to figure collegiate life out for herself, Obama knew there had to be a way to properly prepare first generation college students- thus Reach Higher was born in May 2014.

Five years later and more initiatives have blossomed from the first Beating the Odds Summit at the Obama White House. In 2015, the Better Make Room campaign was created for students to share and learn from one another.

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Now in 2019, Beating the Odds is a full day dedicated to discussing the trials, transitions and triumphs people face while in college, particularly when one is the first in their family to do so.  With the help of mentors, Beating the Odds alumni and special guests, the students leave the day with advice and tools to get them through the scary shift from high school to college.

“If you feel uncomfortable over a period of time that’s okay, because a lot of kids quit because of that feeling of discomfort,” Obama told the crowd. “You’ve got to learn how to get through transitions, because the best things in life require transition just like going from high school to college.”

However, before the former First Lady even entered the room to drop her jewels of wisdom, she gathered an array of esteemed panelists and speakers to inspire the students, including, Howard University President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, Wes Moore of Robin Hood, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and professional football player Malcolm Jenkins.

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world and you are the change that we all need,” President Frederick told the group of students, who were representing Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York.

Darius Wesley, a Beating the Odds alum who recently graduated from Cleveland State University, discussed his trying childhood growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Although Obama is also from Chicago and a first generation college student, he never realized he had the potential to thrive like the former FLOTUS.

“Never in my life would I have thought I’d be able to meet Mrs. Obama,” Wesley said.  “I never thought I’d see my birthday, let alone the First Lady of the United States.”

By the time Obama entered the conversation for the main event, the students already had two hours of inspiration.  However, once the former FLOTUS took the stage, she brought an energy that livened the room and demanded attention from everyone present.

Obama immediately jumped in by telling the students she understood their fear and doubt, but to focus on their importance and right to be in college.

“I know all of you are sitting there, no matter how much you may front, there’s a part of you that’s wondering, ‘whether this is a mistake, and whether I belong, and whether I can do this.  Can I go on this campus or start this program?  Am I really worthy of it?’  Because those were the messages that I had going on in my head and they still come up through life, where it’s like, ‘Am I really good enough?’ Those demons are deep in us and we live in a country where sometimes they want you to feel that way.  They want you to feel like you don’t belong,” the former FLOTUS said.  “But here’s my one big message is that this is not a mistake.  You are here, because you are more than capable of the work.”

In acknowledging the tough times that any college student will face, Obama also talked about mental health awareness.

“You have to be mindful of mental health.  We’re not a society that talks about mental health,” the former FLOTUS said to a crowd of students of color during minority mental health month.

“Going away to school and being homesick-that’s mental health.  Having some depression, some anxiety, feeling nervous- that’s a part of your mental health.  So the first thing I think you guys have to do is not just own it, but you have to recognize mental health is one of the pegs to success.”

Obama recommended students eat healthy, exercise and avoid self-medicating as a means to care for mental health in college and beyond.

Finally, the former FLOTUS stressed the importance of perseverance.

“It feels hard for everyone, and if you quit, start again,” she said.  “You cannot spend your life quitting things that are hard.  You’ve got to practice the hard.”