Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady in a Discussion with Secretary Duncan, Wale and Terrence Jenkins at the "Reach Higher Beating the Odds" Summit

July 23, 2015

MR. JENKINS: Guys, welcome to the White House! Make some noise! (Applause.) I still get excited -- every time I sit next to the First Lady, I still get excited. I see your phones out. (Laughter.)

How long have you guys been here? This entire morning?


MR. JENKINS: Okay, so make sure --

MRS. OBAMA: I heard them upstairs. (Laughter.) You all are loud. (Laughter.)

MR. JENKINS: And on your way out, we're going to check your pockets, all right? I don't know -- you guys have been stealing napkins from the White House. (Laughter.) Some of you -- you went to the bathroom, "did you see the White House napkins?" (Laughter.) "Do they see us?"

MRS. OBAMA: We saw you.

MR. JENKINS: We see you.

MRS. OBAMA: I'm just kidding. (Laughter.)

MR. JENKINS: You got one in your -- you're on the -- you're going to get the signature later.

Guys, welcome. There's no place more exciting than here right now, and I think I can speak for everybody on the panel that we're more excited to see you than you are to see us. Congratulations, everybody here is going to college. You guys have worked really hard. Let's give a round of applause for that. (Applause.) And today is all about reaching higher, reaching after those goals.

Without further ado, let me introduce our panel, then we're going to get into some questions. And we're going to have a fun morning, as you can tell, guys. This is going to be a lot of fun.

Of course, I'm sitting next to the First Lady of the United States of America, Mrs. Michelle Obama. (Applause.) Manuel Contreras is a rising senior at Brown University and the co-founder of 1vyG -- it's an organization that strengthens and empowers first-generation college student networks. Give him a round of applause, please. (Applause.) That guy over there needs no introduction -- Wale, ladies and gentlemen. (Applause.) Wale. And the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who's also a fantastic basketball player. (Applause.) Mr. Secretary, so great to be with you again today.

So, Mrs. Obama, tell us why this program is important to you. It's all about reaching higher, reaching after your goals. Why is this so important?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, I wouldn't be where I am without education. And I say that time and time again. I was blessed to have parents who didn't go to college, but they knew that an investment in education was the best gift they could give me.

And when I realized that with a little hard work and some determination that I could compete and succeed at some of the top schools in the country -- I think about the thousands, the millions of kids just like me who don't get that encouragement but have the same skills and ability.

And part of what I want to do through Reach Higher is to make sure that young people like you all own that future; that you don't listen to the doubters, that you figure out how to make your own path, that you understand that hard work is at the key to everything that you're going to do, and that you make sure you finish your education past high school. Because that's what it's going to take.

So our goal is to help give you the tools and the resources and the information and the encouragement so that we can make education cool again. This should be the cool thing to do in life. There are a lot of wonderful people out there -- celebrities, ballers, all of them -- but the best investment you can make -- (laughter) -- Wale is here for a reason. (Laughter.) He is here for a reason -- because he understands that message, and he's going to talk about that. So there's a reason he's here -- because he knows that this is your first stop. This is the first star you grab for, is your education.

So we want to make education cool again. That's why I'm sitting on this panel with all these handsome men -- right, ladies? (Laughter.) If this is what education is about -- we're going to go for it. (Applause.)

MR. JENKINS: Wale, she spoke a little bit about you. You started college and your career took off while you were still in school. Why is being a part of this program important to you, and why is college important?

WALE: I just think it's -- I legitimize it a little bit because I'm close to you guys' age, and I remember being a senior in high school, not really knowing what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to -- I thought I was going to go to the NFL at that point. But I did know I was going to do something.

The important thing about college to me -- it gave me -- it allowed me to have more time to figure out what I want to do. I think, honestly, when you're 18, when you graduate, you don't know much about life. You don't know what you want to do. A lot of people going to college, undecided majors and things of that nature. But even a community college, you have time to think about it. You have time to get serious. You have time to learn your independence. You have time to learn how to make "oodles of noodles" at 1:00 in the morning while studying a test for tomorrow. (Laughter.) Like, you learn these life skills that you're going to need.

And even in my profession now, myself, or like a J. Cole or guys like that, a lot of us went to school. And a lot of the guys that went to college apply some of the things that we learn in school to even this music career.

MR. JENKINS: And Wale and I talk about that all the time. It's kind of that safety net. While you were at school, you were still doing shows, freestyling, working on your craft. When I was in school, I was student body president. I was doing speeches.

So whether it's directly or indirectly, it prepares you for what your future is going to be. The communication classes I took -- how are you? Good to see you. The communication classes I took while I was in school are the same ones that prepared me for my career right now, and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for getting that background.

Now, Mr. Secretary, you work with this every day. Talk to us about beating the odds -- coming from nothing and making it to something in this country.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: One of the joys of my job is getting to travel the country -- and I've been to all 50 states, and been to Alaska and Hawaii, and been on Native American reservations -- I just can't tell you how inspiring it is everywhere I go to meet young people who weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth, who haven't had all the advantages, but they are working so hard.

And what I always say is, whatever you want to do in life, get an education. It will always open doors for you. Sometimes there's a false conflict between being a rapper, being an entertainer and going to school. And you say, I'd love to play basketball -- my dream was to go to -- you wanted to go to the NFL; I wanted to go to the NBA.

I remember I went to a camp, sort of an all-star camp, between my junior and senior year. There were about 100 of us; we were pretty good players. And the camp director stood up and said, if you're lucky, one of you, one of this top 100 -- and he actually ended up being right. One of us made it, and he was seven feet tall -- (laughter) -- Kevin Duckworth. And what he said is, chase that dream, but catch an education. And that really resonated with me.

So chase whatever dream you might have -- whether it's being on TV or being a rapper or being a ball player -- but catch an education. And if you catch an education, that's going to open doors for you wherever you go.

But I think it's just incumbent upon us -- there are so many young people working so hard every single day to beat the odds. It's up to us as adults to provide more opportunities, better classes, better mentoring, more after-school programming, more summer programs, summer jobs to help more young people fulfill that extraordinary potential.

So I think young people are more than doing their side of the bargain. It's up to us as adults to try and do better and meet them halfway.

MR. JENKINS: Absolutely. Now, we're in the room with a group of young people that are extraordinary. Now, you guys are from all over. I read some of you bios before I came out -- from Florida to North Carolina, to -- you can make noise -- (laughter) -- Chicago, New York. You guys are from all over, and you guys are heading into college this year.

Now, Manuel has a very special story. He's a really bright young man. Tell them a little bit about the challenges that they're going to face and a little bit about what it's like to be going into your senior year. You're just a couple of years removed from them, but you've been doing extraordinary things.

MR. CONTRERAS: Hi, you all. So again, my name is Manuel Contreras. And before we talk about beating the odds, I think it's really important for us to think about the odds. And the odds for a lot of the students in this room, they're not unfamiliar. So what do I want to say? I want to say hi. I want to say that I'm a little nervous. But I also want to say that I'm really excited and proud of each one of you.

And I think a lot about how excited I was to go to college growing up. Being the first one to go to college was not something that was an expectation of me, but it was necessary. So raise your hand if you felt the same way. I knew that I needed -- so both my parents emigrated from -- my family emigrated from Mexico, and I was very lucky to be born in this country for many reasons. And my parents always told me that, "En los Estados Unidos, si trabajas duro, ahí agarras una educacion y todo puede ser tuyo." In this country, if you work really hard and you get an education, all of this can be yours. And I really believe that.

And whenever there was a struggle, whether that was like WIC or that was figuring how to translate for your family, or figuring out to see a path when all of this stuff was going on around you -- I always knew that I had to go to college.

Now, when I was in your shoes, college was a glass ceiling. I wanted to go to college, but I'd never really thought about what happens once you go to college, what happens once you actually arrive. I was really lucky in high school. I worked really hard, had some really great mentors there -- shout-out to Serra High School -- and got to school.

And I remember -- so I go to Brown University, and I remember my first week wishing that -- well, feeling really excited, really disoriented. All this stuff was happening around me. And I remember having this moment where I was like, this is too much; I wish I could close my eyes, blink, have my diploma and be out of here. Because I didn't know how to college.

There were a lot of students that were a lot wealthier than me. There were a lot of students that would talk about books -- books that I'd never read because my high school wasn't as resourced as other schools were. And I also remember feeling a lot of the shame that I wasn't as ready as everyone else. I felt a lot of the times that, while Brown was wonderful and there was this great community and all this stuff is really exciting, there were so many times where I felt like I didn't belong there.

And it wasn't until I went home -- and I also realized there, when I went home during winter break, that I might not belong there either; that home was no longer home in the same way. I'd been able to see both sides, I'd been able to see Brown and all the opportunities here, and I was able to see all the opportunities that weren't at home. And I was very confused about who I was, where I was going, who was I pretending to be in either situation.

And then I went back to Providence. One of my great friends, co-founder of 1vgG, as well, Stanley Stewart, calls it "Providrizzle," because it's winter and it's -- I'm from San Diego, so to see winter and blizzards, no sun at all -- (laughter) --

MRS. OBAMA: It's sad.

MR. CONTRERAS: What is it called? Effective seasonal disorder?

MRS. OBAMA: Yeah, yeah.

MR. CONTRERAS: Yeah, so that is real and legit. (Laughter.) So be on a lookout for that. October through April, right? No sun.

But I remember feeling really, really sad -- and in a way where, like, when you're the one in your family that has to keep going and work really hard. You can't let yourself get down, but I was really down. And there was this senior who -- junior, actually -- who saw me in the basement of our SciLi, which is our science library, which is a really ugly building, so it's a really sad place to be sad in February. (Laughter.) It's like 2:00 a.m., I'm struggling to do my work, and I was like, but you have to do it because you have to do it. And he asked me, why do you feel so sad?

And I told him things that I hadn't even told myself yet -- things around like not really knowing how to communicate what was happening at Brown with my family. They put me on a plane and prayed to God that I'd be okay. And I would tell them, "Mommy, estoy comiendo" -- I'm eating. But they still didn't believe that. I didn't know how to talk about here, and couldn't ask for help there, and I couldn't tell them that things were going hard here, because if I did, that would add additional stress to the family. So I'm just like, "uhh" to him. And he's listening and taking it. So God bless him.

And he told me -- it was two hours of like recognition, of empathy. He told me that I belong here. And there was something so incredibly validating about having someone tell me that. And I felt -- just having that conversation changed my life. It sounds like a stretch, but it was so important to me.

So I felt so much better afterwards, and I got really angry, because it occurred to me that there are so many students who never get -- so why did it take so many months for me to have the conversation? There are so many students who don't have that conversation. I was with a group of friends; we call our -- the Jameson Lounge, and we're all sitting there really like -- we would do our work together, we would eat together, and we were all struggling together. But we weren't talking -- we would talk about how we were going to be stronger than the struggle, but a lot of that struggle was being internalized, and we would sometimes blame ourselves for the difficulties we were having.

And once I learned that so many of us were first-gens, and once we learned that so many of us were the first in our families to go to school, we realized that we wanted to change Brown and other schools for the better; that we wanted students to have those conversations and have a sense of community a lot earlier on in their college career so that they would not only get to college, but get through college. So that led to a group of six of us developing a course our sophomore fall that we took our spring semester with Professor Gregory Elliott in sociology on the experience of first-generation students experiencing social inability, going through school.

It allowed to de-internalize a lot of the feelings and stigma and shame that we had felt, and started pointing to societal issues that were producing these -- things like income inequality, things like under-funding of schools, things like racism -- all these things that were very much a part of our experience. These forces that were shaping us, we could now name. And that was incredibly empowering.

From there on, two of my closest friends at Brown, Jessica Brown and Stanley Stewart, and I started something called 1vyG, which was the inter-Ivy first-gen student network. The idea was to bring together students, administrators, identify the best practices to support first-gens, and implement those in these schools. Because if we can do that, if we can get eight really wealthy schools to start doing that, then we can start getting others. And they can measure the impact of those changes, then that can start spreading to other campuses.

But from there on, I just want to like back them, say that's the work that we've been doing. But I think one of the most important things for everyone in the audience to remember is how rare it is for people like us who come from our communities -- whatever they may be -- that's what's really cool about first-gen, is that it includes so many different kinds of people.

But one thing that it does point out is that so many of us in our communities don't have voices in this country. By getting an education, we can speak truth to power, speak truth to those experiences. By getting an education, you are able to speak and walk between two very different worlds -- your home and your communities -- that are often just ignored by so many in society, but affected by so many societal problems.

You also through an education will gain access to power and opportunities to make a difference there. So rather than feeling like you're from two very different worlds, I've learned -- and 1vyG has taught me that we can really be a bridge between both worlds. And we can go off, get our education, come back to our communities, and work with our communities -- all of our communities -- to make a difference there.

MR. JENKINS: Manuel is definitely the guy that if you're in class --

MRS. OBAMA: He faked us out. "I don't know what I want to say" -- (laughter) --

MR. JENKINS: "But I'm going to say this."

MRS. OBAMA: I got 10 points.

MR. JENKINS: He's the guy you want to be in a group with. Who you want to be a partner with? Manuel.

MRS. OBAMA: Right.

MR. CONTRERAS: All of you, all of you.

MR. JENKINS: Manuel -- you do. I don't know what I did in college. I think I was getting my hair braided in college. (Laughter.) Manuel is running for governor over there. What is going -- great answer there.

We have some questions from -- some tweets that came into E! News that we're going to ask right now to the panel. The first one that came into us was from @AsToldbyDanny -- if you're at home or watching, how are you? "During your college years, what was the hardest thing to adapt to?" #ReachHigher, and they added @FLOTUS. You tweeted me the other day, too. I felt really special. I screen-grabbed it.

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, I want you to feel special, Terrence, and all of you to feel special. That's why we invited you here.

Now, what was the question? (Laughter.)

MR. JENKINS: The hardest thing -- I forgot too. The hardest thing to adapt to in college.

MRS. OBAMA: Well, for me, and unlike Manuel, it was years, decades ago since I was there, but I remember it like it was yesterday. And Manuel's story was very similar. I mean I think you put it so well. It's adapting to an entirely new culture.

I went to Whitney Young, which was a top magnet school. But getting there, I'd never used a syllabus before. I'd never been in big lectures before. I'd never lived in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. And many times you're walking down stairs and around the block in the basement to go to the bathroom. That's a little overwhelming, figuring out how to just get in the groove with your schedule. It takes some adjustment, plus feeling like, what am I doing here? Feeling like maybe my counselors were right, that I had reached too high, and I had overstepped my abilities.

So I think sharing that and articulating that out loud is really important for all of you -- all of you -- to kind of own those feelings. But the one thing that you have to do is reach out for help. And I say that again and again to young people like all of you, because there is something about kids like us who think we're already supposed to know the answers, or that everybody else in the room must have the answer so that's why they're not asking the question.

If you have a question and if you are feeling those feelings, I guarantee you there are several other people in the room, in the college who feel the same way. You have to sort of develop that maturity to ask for help when you need it, and ask for it soon. Do not wait until the end of the quarter or the semester to try to catch up on that problem set. If you're feeling, day one, like, I didn't understand what that professor just -- the chances are he didn't really make it clear.

So you've got to reach out. You've got to find the tutoring and resources and support networks and the student organizations that are going to give you that place to feel a sense of home. And I think that was what saved me. I found what, for me, felt like a substitute for home, a place I could go and just be Michelle Robinson; and be afraid and scared and laugh and have people not question how I did my hair, or all these other things. (Laughter.) Where my thoughts and experiences were not so odd.

You cannot live in isolation when you go to college. The kids who didn't make it from my school, or graduated later, usually were the ones that I didn't see. They just disappeared, and they tried to fix the stuff themselves without having conversations, without -- you cannot do this alone, and you're not supposed to do it alone. And you have to get into the habit, forever and ever and ever, of asking for help.

I cannot be First Lady alone. I have a team of people. I have my mother living here. (Laughter.) It like, it's -- some days, I'm just like, Ma, help me, help me! (Laughter.) So you have to start that now. Because it's not just getting through college -- it's getting through your job. It's becoming a good parent. It's being a partner in a relationship. It all requires help and support. And there is no shame in doing that. The shame is if you wait until you're kicked out. That's the shame of it.

And help is going to come in financial aid -- you're going to have questions about that. And let me not go into it, but do not spend your financial aid money on stuff. Do not take your financial aid money and try to take care of home with it. You cannot pay the electric bill with your financial aid money. You have to take care of your school, and you have to understand that financial commitment. And if that means sitting down with your financial aid advisors every week, every month to understand what this means, then you have to do it.

But nobody is going to do it -- they can set up these programs all they want, but if you don't take advantage of them, then it's on you. And that's the ownership part that you guys have got to understand. That's the maturity part. That's the next step, is that now you've got to embrace this stuff and go for it. And the only person who can do that for you is you. And you can do it -- because I'm sitting here. Manuel is sitting here. If we're here, then you can do this. (Applause.)

MR. JENKINS: She touched on so many good points. And make sure, before you leave here, meet a new friend. Start building that network immediately. You guys are all the same class -- make a new friend that's going to a different school. Stay in touch. Share information. Communicate. Because it takes a team. It takes a network of people to help you reach your goals.

MRS. OBAMA: Terrence, it's even something as small as -- like, Manuel, you said you went home for the first winter break?


MRS. OBAMA: I didn't. And that was a bad move, because I was on campus alone and all these kids had resources to travel and to -- make some friends. Even if you -- because if you can't afford to go home, maybe you want to go home with a friend, you know what I'm saying? But if you don't make any friends, you got nowhere to go. And sometimes that can lead to the depression just because you're sitting on campus by yourself. Because you won't be able to go home for every break. But after that last break, I never stayed on campus by myself. I was at somebody's house, on the floor in the bathroom, doing whatever it took. (Laughter.) And that, in and of itself, made a huge difference to me -- feeling like I wasn't an outsider.

MR. CONTRERAS: Can I just make two really quick points? I get the heebie-jeebies whenever I hear the word "network." I'm always told "built your network, have a network." And raise your hand if you also feel that way? Yes.

So networks are really communities. So I want to stop building networks and I want to start building communities. Because all around you, we are one community right now. We're first-gens. We're going this together. You all came here together. A community, you ask for help with. You reach out with. You share things with. You're vulnerable with. But more importantly, a community trusts you, and they trust that if something is hard you might not have the words to say it, but I will believe that this is hard for you, and I will be there for you and with you, and we'll go together.

Another point -- so, on asking for help, who -- raise your hand if you've never had an extended conversation with someone with a PhD or a professor? Okay, you're all amazing. (Laughter.) And great job with your organizations. But I had never talked to someone with a PhD before, so how could I go into office hours and ask a question when you're the smartest person I've ever met?

That was a lot of, like, the stuff that I was thinking about, and that's why I didn't go. And that's because I learned through the examples -- my friends and I learned through conversations with adult mentors that it's more than just asking for help, but it's learning how to re-learn. When you are the first in your family to go to school, you -- sometimes, just like, learn to put your nose to the books or, like, hit the grindstone, pavement -- all of that. (Laughter.) And you're like, I have me, and I will do it myself. And that doesn't work in college. It can't work in college. Everyone around you -- the structure is designed for students who -- a lot of -- who aren't like a lot of us, students who entitled to asking for help.

So the onus is on universities to change so that they start proactively reaching out to students, particularly students like us, if they're recruiting us, making sure that we have equitable access to those opportunities. But the onus is really on not only you to go and do the work, but for you to help your friends do that work. Because if I didn't have Stan or Jess with me, and if I didn't have, like, the first-gen babies that we now have who are part of our community at Brown, then we wouldn't be able to do any of that because we wouldn't know how to do any of that.

So spread knowledge and help each other out.

MR. JENKINS: Give it up for him one more time, of course. (Applause.) Wale and I have kind of grown up with each other in this industry. We kind of started our careers around similar times, and we've been friends for quite some time. I've watched him and I've been so proud of him as he's grown -- from his records to reaching out and doing other things, his shows. You've acquired a lot of wealth and you've had to manage that, and you've had a lot of sustainability in this industry. How has education and your background helped you in all facets of your very successful career?

WALE: Well, like Manuel here, both my parents aren't from this country, either. But they met in DC at UDC. They both went there. And they had us.

I don't know. I had a lot of confidence issues when I first got to college because I was like -- let's not pretend like I'm here -- I'm here to play ball, you know what I'm saying? So I'm in my first class, they don't even say my name. And they doing roll call, and I'm a number. And there are so many people here, and they're all writing fast. And they're on the laptops. And I'm like, man, I ain't even bring a notebook. (Laughter.) So I'm like, what time is practice?

But one thing it is, is like I always refer to my college days because it taught me to be self-made. It taught me how to be my own boss. And a lot of you guys are going to be your own bosses one day. And that's good and bad to being your own boss.

The bad thing about being your own boss is you really have to wake yourself up. There's no -- I'm not going to get fired if I wake up at 11:00, but I might miss an opportunity. So I'm up at 6:00, you know what I'm saying? I got to tell myself that that came from college.

College essentially to me was taking the training wheels off my life -- taking the training wheels off. My parents were very strict. I grew up in DC and in Maryland. And DC was real bad in the early '90s, and I was -- I could do nothing -- I couldn't go outside. I couldn't do anything. So you mean to tell me I get to go to be around girls all day? (Laughter.) I don't have no curfew. My mom is not like, get in the house. And I had to fall. I had to fall. I had to go to school. I had to fall. I had to be on academic probation. And I had to realize like, nobody is going to do -- like I'm really putting money inside of -- my scholarship money inside of a bowl and burning it if I don't apply myself.

So even when I ended transferring to Virginia State, and when I got there, I was like, this is it. I got to really get myself together. So that's when I started really realizing I got to be my own boss. I got to be my own person. I got to wake myself up. Because they're not going to be like, oh, you're late.

Like, high school is organized and the bell rings, and you go to another class. It's not that in college. You got to be like, I want this, I want this, either because I want it for myself or I don't want to waste my mother's money. I don't want to waste my scholarship money. You got to want it. You got to really, really, really want it. And that's something that I had to learn.

And now my life -- all I do is run my life. Nobody tells me when to get up. None of that. I have to do it. And if I don't do it, I won't be here no more. You won't see Wale at the White House. You might see me outside somewhere washing some cars. (Laughter.) So I had to really want it.

And being self-made -- if anybody knows anything about my music -- it's about being self-made and having ambition. And I really live by those words.

MR. JENKINS: #Ambition, #Trainingwheelsofflife. (Applause.) I like that. Taking the training wheels off life. #BeatingtheOdds.

Where is Jessica Waters? Jessica, you're in trouble. You stole something from the -- I'm joking. (Laughter.) I need you to give back that spoon you took from the -- Jessica, you have a question, and we'd love to have it for the panel right now. Thank you, Jessica.

MS. WATERS: My question is for Mrs. Obama. What was the most important advice you would give kids and teens aspiring not just for college, but for all of their dreams and future achievements that they want to reach? What would your most important piece of advice be?

MRS. OBAMA: That's a tough one because it's a lot of things. But if I were just sort of to go to the core, don't be afraid of hard work. Because I think sometimes when I've talked to kids -- I know people in my own life who think that somehow the folks who succeed, if they come from a different community, they have a silver spoon, they think, well, they don't work hard. The just lucked up on it. They just were in the right place at the right time.

And let me tell you, I've gone to the best schools. My kids go to good schools. And I'm telling you, folks work hard. People are going to class. They're doing their homework. They're studying for the SATs. When they get to college, they don't play. They don't think it's a joke. They know why they're there.

So if anything, they have the advantage of understanding that success is hard work because maybe they've seen their parents who get up every day and go to jobs and travel and make sacrifices for the money that they make. Hard work is at the core of everything. And if it's too easy, then you're probably not working hard enough.

I am where I am, Barack is where he is because -- let me tell you, this President works hard. (Applause.) He works hard. He works all the time. He is always reading. He is always writing. He is never off. You're not -- success is not easy.

So you got to embrace that reality, and then not think that if you stumble, that somehow it's over. Everybody up here knows that failure is a necessary part of growth and success. Each and every one of us on stage has failed in some big, horrible, embarrassing way at some point in our lives. And I'm sure it's going to happen again. That's the way it is.

And I tell my kids this all the time -- do not be afraid to fail. And sometimes that's why we don't work hard because we think maybe if we put our all into it and we don't really achieve what we want, then that's somehow a statement. Don't let that be your mental barrier. Roll up your sleeves. Don't be afraid to work hard. And if you fail, then recover. Get over it. Get up, figure out what went wrong, and go back in. If you fail again, get up, brush yourself off. You will fail. You will fail again. You will fail some more. And the difference between that failure and a failure is that somebody just stopped trying. So don't stop trying. All right?

MR. JENKINS: Words to live by. Who knows what they want to do when they graduate from college? Does everybody? And then there are some of you that didn't raise your hand. And I was on that list of not knowing what it was when I went into college, and my entire life I was told that I was -- I wasn't able to play sports. I wasn't athletic. I was always too short or too skinny. I was called corny and goofy and awkward. But the only thing that I knew that I could do is that I could work hard. I can get up in the morning and I can keep going when other people had stopped. So to her point, I saw a t-shirt -- I'm sorry, on Instagram, and it said, "Barack Obama has the same 24 hours in the day that you do." And it just -- it really hit because it's like we all have the same amount of time. It's all up to us on when you're going to get up, like Wale said, and go chase after your dreams, go chase after what you're passionate about. And make sure to ask questions. Like the question I'm going to ask -- I don't know how to pronounce this next name, so if you know you have the next question -- where are you? Amalfi? I'm so sorry. How do I say it? Amalfi Penna (ph). Thank you so much. You're beautiful. What's your question?

Q: Thank you. I'm nervous. But I realized that, as teenagers, we often envision what our lives would be like in the future based on our passions. So my question for you is, did your passion ever change? Did you know that you would be right here, right now, back then?

MR. JENKINS: Mr. Secretary, if you would.

SECRETARY DUNCAN: So, I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. (Laughter.) So it's not something you ever know right away. But I will say, I've been very, very lucky that I have always had two passions: I love playing basketball, and I love working with kids and education. And those are the only two jobs I've had in my life. So I played basketball for four years after I graduated, and the rest of my life I've worked with kids and education. And there are a lot of my friends who have done other things and honestly made a lot more money than me, but I don't think they've been as happy as I've been, and I don't think they've had the impact that I've had, or had as meaningful a life.

And so your passions may change. There are different ways to do it. But I always say, you find over time what your genius is, what you love -- and all of us have to make a living -- but find what you would get up and do every single day if you didn't have to make a nickel and you can pursue that. And if you can figure out over time, whether you're 18 or 28 or 58, what your passion is and what you love to do, I think there's nothing more important in life than pursuing that with all you have.

And there are folks, again, my age who wish they had done some other things, and didn't go for chasing more money or doing whatever. And you don't get that time back. So I've been very, very lucky and been able to stay focused on those things that I truly love.

MR. JENKINS: Great stuff. Our press is breaking down. We're going to go into the more private part of our session, and we'll be able to talk even more freely.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady in a Discussion with Secretary Duncan, Wale and Terrence Jenkins at the "Reach Higher Beating the Odds" Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321763

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives