Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady and Soledad O'Brien During a Girls' Education Discussion with Cuban Students in Havana, Cuba

March 21, 2016

MS. O'BRIEN: So hi, everyone. Me llamo Soledad, and I'm a journalist. And my mother is Cuban, and grew up not very far from here. I spend a lot of time telling stories, and sometimes they're stories about tough things -- like the color of our skin and the things that challenge us, and also the things that inspire us, and how we overcome our limits.

I started a foundation that helps young ladies about your age -- for young girls who might need some guidance and help and support. It's called Starfish Foundation, and we help pay for girls to go to school. Because in America, school, college is pretty expensive.

You may know that there are 62 million girls in the world who don't have access to education. And sometimes, one of the big things they lack is support and guidance to get through. And one of the things that has inspired me about what Mrs. Obama does is that this is a real focus -- Let Girls Learn. Because it's not just about can you do the work in school, it's also about can you handle the stress and the emotion -- and sometimes the emotional guidance you need.

Mrs. Obama went to one of the best universities in the United States. But she's talked in the past about, while she could do the work, it was the emotional stress that was really hard, navigating that. And it's one of the things that has influenced Let Girls Learn, and some of the other programs that we'll talk about today. I want her to talk about her experiences personally, and then also what she's learned as she's spoken to young women not just here in Cuba, but around the globe.

So that's a little bit of a long introduction, but without any further ado, let me introduce you to the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, Soledad. And thank you for agreeing to moderate today's panel.

MS. O'BRIEN: My pleasure.

MRS. OBAMA: We are proud to have you and your family with us.

MS. O'BRIEN: Thank you.

MRS. OBAMA: But I'm not going to talk too long, because I want to make sure that we have a wonderful conversation. And later on, we're going to open this up so that you can ask any questions of me and learn however much you want during this conversation.

But as I've traveled around the world as First Lady, one of the things that I always try to do on my visits is to talk to young people, particularly young girls. As the mother of two beautiful young ladies who are about your age -- who you'll get a chance to meet today -- and also as an individual who was herself a young minority growing up and trying to do her best, I know how important it is and how challenging it can be for young girls to understand the importance of education, to fight through all the stereotypes, and to make sure that we have access to all the resources and all the emotional support we need to be successful.

So when I hear that there are 62 million girls worldwide that don't have the opportunity to get an education, it is an outrage for me personally. And the reasons these girls are not in school are many and varied. Sometimes they're not in school because they can't afford school fees. Sometimes they're not in school because they don't have access to school, and they have to travel for miles, long distances to get to school. And sometimes there are just social and cultural norms in their countries and their villages that say that young girls aren't worthy of an education, but they should be married off at an early age, have children as teenagers, and spend most of their time doing household chores.

But what we do know -- and the studies are clear -- is that when women and girls get an education, their families, their countries all prosper as a result. So as part of Let Girls Learn, one of the things that I want to do is build a worldwide army of young women who are out there building awareness around these challenges -- and as you all grow and become young professionals, that you keep this in mind, and that this becomes an issue that we're all working to improve as we go out there and become whoever we're going to become in the world.

All of you are amazing role models, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to spend some time with you. I want to hear about your lives. I want to hear about your hopes and dreams. And we also brought questions from young people just like you in the United States who are so excited about the relationship between our two countries. And they have many, many questions that they want to know. So hopefully this will be a conversation, and I'm excited to hear everything you all have to say.

So don't be nervous. I know that's hard to say in all of this, but hopefully this will be fun for all of us.

MS. O'BRIEN: Okay. Let's begin with introductions. Will you start for me?

STUDENT: (As interpreted.) Hello. I'm Evelyn. I'm 17 years old. I worked at the university college -- I'm studying, sorry, at the university college. And last year, I was part of an exchange program in the United States.

STUDENT: (As interpreted.) Good morning. I'm Laura. I'm 18 years old. I was also part of a science camp in the United States, and I'm also a college student.

STUDENT: (As interpreted.) Good morning. I'm Marian. I'm 19 years old. I'm also about to start a program in the social communications college at the Havana University. And just like Evelyn, I was part of an exchange program in the United States.

STUDENT: Hello. My name is Jessica. I'm 20 years old. I study violin at ISA, and I was part of an interchange between orchestras in the United States.

STUDENT: (As interpreted.) Good morning. I'm Liz Maryam. I'm 17 years old. I'm studying accounting at the Antonio Guiteras School. And I was part of a science camp in (inaudible.)

STUDENT: Good morning to you all. My name is Gabriela. I'm 19 years old, and I study physics at the University of Havana. And I went last summer to some project at the United States for study.

STUDENT: Good morning. My name is Rocio. I'm 16 years old, and I'm studying at the José Miguel Péres High School.

STUDENT: Hi. I'm Talia. I am 15 years old, and I study piano in the National School of Arts.

STUDENT: Good morning. My name is Anette. I'm 21 years old, and I'm studying industrial design.

STUDENT: It's a pleasure having you here. My name is Lisa. I'm 18 years old, and I'm a student at San Alejandro's Academy. It is a fine arts school and I'm -- painting specialty.

MS. O'BRIEN: Excellent. Well, welcome.

MRS. OBAMA: Yay! (Applause.)

MS. O'BRIEN: Let's begin with our first question. Our first question comes from Chippewa Middle School. And I'm going to play the question, and then we'll have you translate.

Q: (As interpreted.) How many and what kind of classes do you take in Cuba?

STUDENT: Well, first of all, in Cuba, the classes are for free, I'd like to point that. And we have a basic and mandatory also, school -- information, which is until ninth grade. So in that period, you have all kind of stuff. I mean, science and physics and whatever, but also (inaudible) and political culture. Anything you need. It's just basic.

From that point on, you can either choose to study at the technical studies, or you can get into college or the university. It depends on what you want, and also your development through the school.

MRS. OBAMA: I was going to ask, do the grades mirror the grades in the United States? So in ninth grade, are you sort of roughly 15, 16 years old? It's the same -- so at a pretty young age, you start to specialize in your field?

STUDENT: You can do that, or you can just go to college with three more years. And then you can choose to study at the university.

MS. O'BRIEN: So college here is what we would consider the upper levels of high school in the United States, right? So in some schools -- I mean, I'm sure your daughters get to pick the classes that -- some of the classes they want to take. I'd be curious if you guys do.

STUDENT: I mean, until ninth grade, you can't. It's just the basic information. But, as I said earlier, from that point on, you can specialize in music or whatever you want to study, and the -- technique, career, or whatever. But if you choose also the high school, those three years will be also more basic things. And then you can get into the university, which is the specific career you want.

MS. O'BRIEN: Should we move to our second question? Since you mentioned music, let's listen to the second question -- from Boyertown High School.

Q: Hi, I'm Liz. I'm the upright bassist at Boyertown Senior High, in their jazz band. And I was wondering what kind of musical opportunities do you guys have in Cuba?

MS. O'BRIEN: Jessica, you mentioned that you're a violinist, yes? Can you answer that?

STUDENT: Well, either -- if you choose to dedicate your life to music or not in basic school, which is free, you have the opportunity to learn everything you need to know to develop music as a hobby in cultural centers with our instructors. But if your choice is to dedicate your life to music, then you have to apply to a music school at early ages. The age depends on the instrument.

A minor instrument -- you always have to play piano. And the main one is up to you. And there are three levels -- basic, primary and secondary school; intermediate, high school; and then university. And when you graduate, you can play in orchestras, quartets. You can teach, or do opera, ballet and present your -- at festivals, concerts.

MRS. OBAMA: How old were you when you knew you wanted to pursue music?

STUDENT: Well, I always wanted to study music. The instrument I wanted to play was harp, but here there's only one teacher, so I chose violin.

MRS. OBAMA: And you were how old when you --

STUDENT: Eight years.

MRS. OBAMA: You were eight years old, at the wise old age of eight.

MS. O'BRIEN: Will you go on to university?

STUDENT: I'm in university now.

MS. O'BRIEN: And so when you get out of university, what will you do?

STUDENT: I'd love to play in an orchestra.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady and Soledad O'Brien During a Girls' Education Discussion with Cuban Students in Havana, Cuba Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320900

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