Remarks by the First Lady during Ballou High School Visit

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–March 30, 2011 – 1:57 P.M. EDT

MRS. OBAMA:  Well, it was — Principal Branch, it was important to tell that story, because another one of the reasons why I like to come out to schools is because I want the nation to see all that you all have to accomplish.  And a lot of times when I show up, other people will follow.  So I’ve heard a lot of good things about this school, about the students in this room, in this building, and I’m honored to be here.

One of the reasons why we do this is that when my husband was elected and we got into the White House, every First Lady can have a set of agendas.  And I have a few, but one of the things that I wanted to do with this office is to open up the White House primarily to kids in this community to make sure that everyone in this country and everyone in this district understood that the White House was their house.

And sometimes you do that by inviting people in, but a lot of times you do that by stepping out and going into other people’s community.  And mentoring is also an important part of my agenda, because it was an important part of my life.  I wouldn’t be here today, and neither would my husband, if we didn’t have people in our lives who stepped off of their track to enter our lives and our worlds and help us figure out the path for getting where we needed to be.

And our view is that we have an obligation to give that back; you know, the further you go, the further you have to reach back and make sure you’re pulling other people along the way.  So I’ve been spending a lot of time investing in mentoring and trying to get other famous and wonderful people to do the same thing.

So today, we’ve got a group of women, because it is the end of Women’s History Month, who’ve come from all over the country who are going out to schools just like yours.  And I am fortunate enough to be here.  But we’ve got people like Lisa Leslie and Dominique Dawes and Geena Davis and India Arie and Ledisi and, you know, the head of Lifetime and the head of the folks who make Sesame Street.  We’ve got a general.  We’ve got an astronaut.  We’ve got, you know, people of all walks of life who’ve flown here to D.C. just to be a part of this day and to spend some time with you all, because they think, number one, you all are just that important, and they feel that same obligation that I do to try and be some point of connection for you all.

Another reason I like to do this is because when I listen to Principal Branch about the struggles and the journey you have to take just to get to school every day, it reminds me of me.  I went to a public magnet high school on the South Side of Chicago that was an hour and a half away from my house, because the schools around my neighborhood weren’t preparing kids for college.

So I would get up, get on the bus at 6:30 in the morning every morning and ride the bus all the way to the other side of town just to get an education.  So I know what it feels like to struggle to get the education that you need.  In so many ways, I see myself in you all.  And I want you to see yourselves in me, so that you’re not looking at me just as the First Lady of the United States.

But I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and my parents were working-class folks.  I had two of them.  I was fortunate enough to have two parents.  But my parents didn’t have a lot of money, and I went to public schools my entire career.  So there’s not too much of a difference between how I was raised and how many of you all are raised.

But I’m here, and the point is, is that you can be here, too.  And I say this a lot, there is no magic to being here.  You know, Barack and I were not born with silver spoons in our mouths and connections and money and resources.  A lot of why we’re where we are today is because we worked hard.  We felt a deep passion for getting our education.  We were motivated not by making our friends proud of us, but by making our family proud of us.
And with a lot of preparation, when the opportunities presented themselves, we were ready.  And you all can do the same.

So that’s why I’m here.  But I’m also here so you all can ask some questions.  It’s not every day you get to talk to the First Lady of the United States, right?  I mean, I’m assuming.  (Laughter.)  You got good people that come, but I haven’t been here yet.

So now, I want to spend some time — the press will stay for a short period of time, because I know that sometimes you like being in front of the press.  Sometimes, it’s easier when they’re gone.  But we’re going to take a couple of questions to start out with.  Then, we’ll let them leave.  And then, we’ll keep talking.  So you can ask anything you want, as long as it’s PG.  (Laughter.)

Q    Hi, Mrs. Obama.  My name is Ryan Hayes (ph).  And I was wondering if it’s possible that we can have a national anti-bullying campaign to go along with your child nutrition program?

MRS. OBAMA:  That’s a good question.  We just hosted, the President and I, a national conversation at the White House about bullying.  So there are a number of efforts that we’re supporting to bring to light this issue and the challenges that young people are facing in schools today.

So I think it’s important that we have a national conversation.  But a lot of the work that needs to happen around the question of bullying needs to happen on the ground.  It’s got to happen with parents and principals and communities and with kids, all of you all, taking some responsibility for either stepping up or staying out of that fray.

You know, there’s a lot of things that the President can do.  But, you know, affecting behavior on the ground, a lot of times it has to come from the community.  So I think the important thing is for people to raise awareness about the issue.  We’re trying to do our part in encouraging all of you to have conversations in your schools, in your homes and communities to sort of figure out what’s going on. What’s going on with kids today?  What are the things that are leading kids to bully?  What keeps kids from being able to stand up for themselves?  I mean, those are questions I have for all of you, because generationally, you know, you wonder if the question is, is it this generation?  Is this something that’s not new?  Has it changed?

And those are questions that I’m curious about.  So that’s why these conversations are really important.  Thanks for the question.

Q    Hi, I’m Rebecca Bib (ph).  I’m not a teenage mom, but what would you say to a teenage mom who still wants to go to college?

MRS. OBAMA:  I would say, good for you.  (Laughter.)  I mean, not to be funny.  But no, I would say, excellent.  But I would probably tell a teenage mother the same thing I would tell any young person who’s thinking about college.  And I would say, think about what you want to get out of college and think about it thoroughly.  Think about the cost.  Think about how you’re going to afford it.  Think about, you know, what kind of loans you’ll have to take out to go.  Think about the job market on the other end.  Where are the jobs in this economy, and what kind of training and education do you need to get them?

So, you know, I want young people to end their educational career with success on the other side.  And I would urge young people to think about how they define that success, right?  And it’s unfortunate that young people have to think about that so early in their lives.  I mean, when I was going to school it was a given that you’d go to college, whether you took out — and I took out a lot of loan debt to go to college, because I went to a very expensive private school.  My parents didn’t have money.  So what you did was you took out loans.

But when I was going to school and you came out on the other end, there was probably a job waiting that could help defray the cost of those loans.  When I went to law school, it was the same thing.

Now, I would urge people to know what that job is and to think about that in addition to thinking about getting an education.

So I think young people nowadays have to really think about the plan.  You know, I’d urge you all to think about what are the jobs out there, what are you good at, where are your passions, and then work from there.

And also, the truth is, is that it’s going to change.  So you may not know.  And you may decide it’s worth the investment for me to go to a four-year college or go to a community college, because I need that baseline education and I’m going to incur that debt because in the end it’s going to prepare me for something bigger and better.  And if you know that and you’re going into it thoughtfully, go for it.  College is no joke because it is so expensive.  But it is necessary in so many ways to prepare yourselves for the jobs for the future.

But the first thing is to get this right, to be focused in high school, so that when you leave here, the choices are yours, right?  I mean, you don’t want to be opted out of college because you fooled around as a freshman and as a sophomore, right, because you were a knucklehead as a junior and a senior, that you weren’t thinking about anything at all.  You don’t want those doors to be closed to you, because you weren’t ready, right?

So what that means is that you all have to do is focus on how to prepare yourselves.  You remember what I said?  Barack and I didn’t — there was no magic dust sprinkled on us.  But we were ready, right?  And ready meant we came to school every day, right?  We were on time.  We didn’t cause trouble.  We didn’t get into trouble.  We learned to read and write well.  We were ready, you know?

We had good relationships with our teachers.  We got involved in outside activities.  So then when it was time to apply to college, those options were ours to either choose or not, right?  But it wasn’t because we weren’t ready and didn’t take the courses and, then, senior year you come to find out you needed four years of English and two years of a language and now you can’t go because you weren’t thinking like that, right?  You want to be prepared for the opportunities so that these choices are yours.  And you want to think about who you want to be and how you want to structure that, so that you have a plan.

Look, our daughter who is 12 is thinking about this stuff now.  And she is a little interesting, right?  I mean, we weren’t thinking about this stuff at 12.  But she is thinking about it at 12.  And it’s important for you all to know that there are kids out there that are being trained to think about this stuff at 12, right?  At 12 years old, they’re thinking, okay, what courses do I need to take, and how do you get into the best schools and what are they looking for, and what do I have to do now to get myself ready?

You don’t want to be in 12th grade thinking about that stuff.  You want to think about it now, because the rest of the country and the world, the kids who are going to get these opportunities are preparing themselves every single day.  So you don’t want to wake up one day and start trying to get it together.  Get it together now.  And that’s what I would tell a teen mom.  And that’s what I would tell any young person thinking about college.

Does that make sense?  Anything that doesn’t make sense, just let me know and I’ll try and clarify.  Next?  What else?

PRINCIPAL BRANCH:  Okay, so we’re going to take just a quick break so that the media and such can excuse themselves.  And then, it’s going to be your time specifically with the First Lady.  So we’ll just pause for that.

MRS. OBAMA:  Bye, press.

2:09 P.M. EDT