First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama told a group of Oxford hopefuls that “success is not about the background you’re from but the effort you put in”, at Christ Church on Wednesday.
As part of the Presidential European tour, Mrs Obama spoke in the intimate setting of the College great hall, giving a rare insight into the every day life of America’s First Family: “My philosophy on mothering hasn’t changed since entering the White House. Raising my children well is the most important job I will ever have,” she said.
Thirty-five pupils from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) Language College in North London met Mrs Obama on a University “immersion day”, as part of an access scheme run by Oxford.
The First Lady has a close relationship with the school, having visited soon after her husband was inaugurated in 2009: “It was my first solo international event as First Lady. The school is a very special place.
“I’m inspired by your passion and strong sense of energy. There’s so much of my own story in your stories,” she told the pupils.
She continued: “I’m glad I had the education I had. The things I tell my girls are the same things I’m telling you. Make mistakes, get things wrong, ask questions – ask stupid questions – trip up, fall down, get up, you have to practise who you want to be. Hard work doesn’t just appear. The times I’ve grown have been the times I’ve overcome a fear.”
Wearing a white shirt dress, slim black trousers and a cream patent belt, the First Lady took questions from the school pupils. When asked whether she ever thought her husband would become President, she said: “Absolutely not! But he has a strong work ethic, a brilliant relationship with his mother, he jokes a lot and loves his little sister. You don’t meet people like that every day. I always knew he’d be useful, but I didn’t know he’d be President.”
Mrs Obama then advised the pupils to “reach out for partners that make you better. Trust your instincts. A good relationship feels good. It also feels right.”
In a light-hearted exchange with one of the pupils, the President’s wife expanded on her daughters’ aspirations: “There’s one thing about your children – they never want to be like you – they want to be the opposite! Malia was once asked what she wanted to do when she grows up. She started to answer and gave about five different things, but then said, ‘I don’t know – I’m 11!’ But it’s not all about getting an A – it’s about learning and loving learning.”
EGA headteacher Jo Dibbs praised Mrs Obama’s involvement in improving access to elite universities. She said: “You’ve exemplified your commitment to making sure that backgrounds do not determine a young person’s future.”
St Anne’s student and former EGA pupil Clarissa Pabi was the focus of the event. Speaking to the all-female audience, she said: “Construct your own image. You have Oyster cards – you can go anywhere! The world is your oyster! Like Beyoncé recently said: ‘Who rules the world: girls!’”
In a direct address, Mrs Obama told her: “You have to believe in yourself. Don’t wait until you make it big yourself either – reach back and help others to get here too.” She then told pupils “the process starts at once, right now, as soon as you get back to school. Get inspired, and get excited about what you’ve seen here in Oxford today.”
EGA English teacher Holly Wilkins, who works with Clarissa’s former English teacher Mr Silver, said: “Mr Silver always says Clarissa was an amazing student and he’ll be honoured that she’s here today. The students were enthusiastic about coming to Oxford anyway, but when they heard that Michelle Obama was going to be here they were even more excited.”
Student schools liaison mentor, Mo Chatterji, who spent the day with the EGA group, said: “Michelle talked so eloquently and with so much feeling, about how she was from a background where people told her it would be unlikely that she could go to university. She chose to ignore those people and prove them wrong. After the First Lady’s talk, the students were absolutely buzzing, very talkative and asking lots of questions about Oxford…Michelle is a great role model and a maternal figure for the girls. This has been a great step forward for Oxford access.”
Oxford’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions Mike Nicholson said he was “absolutely delighted” by the First Lady’s presence. “The Uni does everything it possibly can to encourage students from different backgrounds to apply.”
There was a heavy security presence around Christ Church, with armed guards protecting the First Lady and a large number of uniformed officers patrolling the college, which was closed to the public.
Mrs Obama exchanged hugs with the pupils and student mentors, before climbing into a blacked out four-wheel drive, in a seven vehicle convoy. A large crowd of onlookers gathered at the gates of the college to catch a glimpse of the President’s Wife as the convoy left Oxford around 4.30pm.
The President’s wife spent last night at Buckingham Palace, where she and her husband dined with the Royal Family and senior politicians.
When a pupil asked her what day to day life is like in the White House, Michelle Obama said: “Well, I’m here! Last night I was dining at Buckingham Palace, and on Friday I go home to go to soccer and go over homework. It goes from the mundane to the extreme. Anyway, I can watch the palace and all that other stuff on TV. What’s really great is that I get to meet you guys. You’ve got to mix it up – otherwise it’s not cool.”
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