Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at Renca School in Santiago, Chile

March 21, 2011

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Hola. Hello, everybody. Es un placer estar aquí con ustedes. (Applause.) Gracias. (Applause.)

Before I begin today, I just want to say that our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the people of Japan as they begin to rebuild after the devastating earthquake and tsunami over a week ago.

Here in Chile, you know the kind of damage these disasters can cause. You've experienced it many times yourselves. You know how difficult a time this is for so many families. And so my heart goes out to all those in Japan, here in Chile, in the United States and around the world for those who have lost loved ones.

But even with everything that's going on in the world, it is a pleasure and an honor to be in this beautiful country, at this wonderful school, with all of you.

I want to start by thanking Camila for that very, very kind introduction.

We are honored today to be joined by the First Lady of Chile, Cecilia Morel.

I also want to recognize the Minister of Education, Joaquin Lavín, and the mayor here, Vicky Barahona, and your principal, Palmira Cosgrove.

And my husband and I, we are so grateful to everyone who has made us feel so welcome here.

I'm especially excited to be here at the Condor Summit Bicentennial School, because I know how special this place is. I know that this is the very first bicentennial high school of academic excellence in the country. It is a place where students like all of you can learn from the best teachers, where you can use the latest technology, where you can develop the skills you need to reach your potential. And I know that as the first graduating class, you all are breaking down barriers. You represent the future, not just of this school, but of your entire country.

So I'm here because I want to see all the amazing things that you're doing. And I want to see the progress that you're making.

But there is another reason why I love to visit schools like this and to talk with students like all of you when I travel. And that is because I see a little bit of myself in all of you.

You see, it wasn't so long ago that my husband and I were young people just like all of you, dreaming the same dreams, facing the same challenges that all of you are.

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chicago. Chicago is the third largest city in America, and about half the size of Santiago. My father worked in the boiler room of a water treatment plant. And for most of my childhood, my mother stayed home to take care of my brother and me.

Our family did not have a lot of money. We did not live in a fancy neighborhood. We lived in a teeny, little apartment on the second floor of my great-aunt and uncle's home, and my brother and I, we shared a bedroom for as long as I can remember.

But even though we didn't have much, we always had a roof over our heads, we always had food in our stomachs. We had a strong family. Our house was filled with warmth and laughter and a lot of love.

My parents were hard workers who made great sacrifices to give my brother and me the opportunities they never had. See, that was their dream -- to give us a better life and more opportunities than they could have ever imagined. And in our family, that meant one thing: getting a good education. Growing up, there was never any question in my parents' minds that we would go to college.

My parents and grandparents were some of the smartest people I have ever known, but they never had the chance to complete college themselves. That's why they were so determined to give me and my brother that chance. And they always told us that even if we weren't rich, we were just as smart, we were just as capable as anyone else.

And more than anything, that was my parents' greatest gift to us. They taught us that if we dreamed big enough, and if we worked hard enough, anything was possible.

And in my country, we call that the American Dream. And I think that's also true right here in Chile. It's the belief that whether you live in a little apartment in Chicago, or right here in Renca, none of us has to be limited by our circumstances.

And that dream has guided my life, and I hope it will guide each of you as you leave this school and start building your own lives.

Now, I'm not saying that the road ahead will be easy. Some of you may come from families just like mine, where you're the first one to go to a school like this, or the first one to go to college. So maybe you've heard people doubting whether you've got what it takes to succeed.

Maybe if you're a girl, maybe you're hearing people say that you can't compete with the boys; that you can't do well in school and build a career for yourself. Maybe those voices come from inside your own head sometimes -- voices telling you that it's too hard, or that the odds are stacked too high against you.

And believe me, I know that feeling. I do. When I was in high school, I watched my older brother apply and get into Princeton University, one of the most prestigious universities in the country. He was the first one in my immediate family to go to a college like that, but he also played basketball there.

Yet when it was my turn to apply to college, and I dreamed of joining my brother at Princeton, there were people who told me that I would never be accepted, and that if I did get in, I wouldn't be able to keep up with the kids who were wealthier or who'd gone to better high schools than I did.

And soon, I started to doubt myself. I started to wonder whether those people might be right. But then I thought, well, I know I'm smarter than my brother. So I worked harder. I was more determined. I was more focused. I used those voices of doubt as a source of motivation for me.

And you know what, I graduated from Princeton with departmental honors in sociology. I went to law school. I built a career and I raised a family. I was able to accomplish all of this because I listened to the people who cared about me rather than those trying to cut me down. I listened to people who believed in me, and told me I could do anything I set my mind to.

And that's what each of you is doing every day at this school. You're proving the voices of doubt wrong. You're proving that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about you. The only thing that matters is what you think about yourself and what you're willing to do to achieve your goals.

And that's why I was so proud to hear that when this school first opened, so many of you came two weeks early so that you could prepare yourselves to succeed at this school.

And I'm sure there were a lot of things you would have rather been doing those last precious days before school started. But you came anyway and you studied hard because, as Mayor Barahona said, and this was her quote: "Big dreams also require big efforts."

Big dreams also require big efforts. And that's a lesson I learned a long time ago, and one that many of you have learned at this school, because the truth is, building a better life for yourself is never easy. No one achieves success overnight.

Pablo Neruda wasn't born knowing how to write beautiful poetry. His father worked for the railroad, and disapproved of his interest in writing and literature. But when Pablo was a teenager, he met the principal of a local girls school, who gave him books to read and she encouraged him to become a poet. And he went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Marcelo Salas didn't start out as the best football player in Chile. He grew up in Temuco. And every day, he would get up two hours earlier than his friends to go outside and practice his free kicks by himself. Years later, those skills would help him lead Chile in the World Cup.

My husband hasn't always been the President of the United States. He was raised by a single mother, with the help from his grandparents. And they often struggled to make ends meet. And he was not always the best student. But his mother was determined to send him to college, so she woke him up early every morning to practice math problems before she went to work. And it is that determination that helped him become the man he is today.

So the truth is that anything worth having takes time, it takes effort, it takes determination. So for all of you here today, the question is, what does that mean for you? Well, it means paying attention in class every day. It means listening to your teachers. It means doing every assignment, and always, always doing your very best. It means taking some risks, it means trying something new, it means trying something hard, not being afraid to make mistakes. And it means asking questions when you don't understand something, because that's really how you learn.

As the great poet Gabriela Mistral once wrote, and these are her words: How sad the world would be if all was already done. If there was no rosebush to plant, no enterprise to undertake. Do not limit yourselves to easy tasks.

And then, after you've done all that, after you've asked all those questions, after you've taken control of your own destiny and pulled yourselves up, then I want you all to look back and to pull someone else along after you.

Once you've succeeded, I want you to help someone else succeed -- maybe that's a brother, or a sister, maybe it's a neighbor, maybe it's a classmate -- because none of us can fulfill our dreams on our own. For those of us fortunate enough to reach our goals, it is our obligation to help someone else do the same, and it is never too early to start helping others.

So I know the journey ahead may not be easy. And I know that many of you may be worried about what the future holds and whether you'll be able to succeed here at this school and then in college.

But I also know something else. I know you can do it. I believe in you. My husband believes in you. And we're not alone. Your country believes in you. That's why the hillside says "Renca La Lleva." (Laughter.) "Renca Rocks." (Applause.) And that's why this school was built.

President Piñera said, "It is in the classroom where we're going to determine our success or our failure as a country." And he's right. Pretty soon, the world will be looking to all of you to make the discoveries and to build the businesses and to heal the divisions that will shape Chile and the world for decades to come.

Your teachers believe in you. I understand that here at the Condor Summit Bicentennial School, every grade is named after one of Chile's highest mountain peaks. Is that right? And that is no accident because it symbolizes the heights your teachers know you can reach if you put your mind to it. I understand one of your teachers said, and this is a quote, "I want [my students] to understand that our present is the consequence of the past, but that a better future is in their hands."

And then there are your parents, and the many other people who love and care about you. They believe in you too. That's why so many of them have sacrificed so much, helping you get to school in the morning, making sure you do your homework at night, and doing everything they can to give you a chance at a brighter future.

President Piñera, your teachers, your parents, my husband and I, all of us, we believe in you. So the only thing left is for you to believe in yourself.

And I know that Valeria Castro, she believes in herself. I understand that Valeria is from Lo Prado, and she gets up at 5:30 every morning to come to this school. But she doesn't complain, because she wants to be a nurse. You see, Valeria has cared for her sick grandfather for years, I understand. And when she heard there was a new school being built here in Renca, she registered for the admissions test and she passed with flying colors, because she knows what it's like to need help, and she wants to make a difference.

And then there's Daniel Olave. He knows that feeling, too, I understand. He lives in El Bosque, which is an hour and a half away from here. Daniel's older brother lost his life in an act of violence. And after grieving with his family, he vowed that he would never let a tragedy like that happen to anyone else. So he became a fireman. And sometimes that means he goes a full night without sleep because he's on the streets responding to emergencies. But he doesn't mind. And he's here at this school today so he can one day become a paramedic, and save lives every day.

And then there's Jonathan Navarrete. When Jonathan was growing up, his parents told him that they could no longer afford his school expenses. But rather than dropping out, Jonathan followed the advice of his history teacher and moved to Santiago, to a new city and unfamiliar city, and he lived with a relative so he could continue his education. No one in his family finished school, but he hopes to be the first one to graduate from college. And here in Renca, Jonathan is one step closer to making that dream a reality.

So these are the kind of stories that inspire me. You all are the kind of young people who make me believe that our future is in good hands. And even though the road ahead won't always be easy, I hope that you will never give up.

I hope that you will never forget just how many people have sacrificed for you and believe in you and want to see you succeed.

I hope that you know, deep in your hearts, that you have everything it takes to succeed, you have the intelligence, you have the passion, you have the courage, you have determination, everything you need to fulfill every last one of your dreams.

So I hope that you all keep pushing, not just yourselves but you keep pushing one another. I hope that you'll continue to work as a community, that you support each other, that you encourage each other, that you help one another as you move up.

And on those days that will come that you wonder whether the effort is worth it, on those days when those voices of doubt start creeping back into your head, I just want you to think of my story, I want you to think of my husband's story, and the story of so many others who have succeeded in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and know that "Yes You Can," "Si Tu Puedes."

And if you do that, I can't wait to see all the good that all of you will do for your country and for our world in the months and years ahead.

Gracias. Thank you so much. God bless you. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at Renca School in Santiago, Chile Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320524

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