Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the "Reach Higher" Community College Panel Discussion in Columbia, Maryland

September 17, 2015

MS. WILLIAMS: So I'm just going to jump right in. Mrs. Obama, why community college?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, I was talking to a couple of the students who did the tour with me, and one of the things I pointed out is that when we talk about college, a lot of times people think four-year university. And that's not often the right path for many students.

But we're fortunate enough to live in a country where you have so many options for pursuing your education beyond high school. And community colleges are one of those phenomenal choices, and career in technical education is just amazing.

And Howard Community College is one of the stars. I mean, the work that is being done here, the level of education, the connection to the hospital just nearby. We went on a tour and just saw some phenomenal training. The students were articulate and clear. They had a clear pathway to what they wanted to do. They were getting real training that could be applied right away.

The other thing about community colleges is that they're affordable. It's an affordable pathway to getting your education. And many of the students here were taking classes in high school, getting credit, and being able to start here maybe in their second year, saving money.

So particularly for kids who think that college is unaffordable, two-year colleges are the thing you should really look at. Also, it gives you flexibility that you don't get in a four-year college. I mean, maybe you can't travel away from home. Maybe you need to stay nearby. Maybe you're just not ready for that big jump. Maybe you don't have any idea what you want to do -- and there are a lot of heads shaking here, right? (Laughter.) Well, maybe before you invest in a $100,000 degree, you want to take some time to get some training and education and exposure at your nearby community college.

So we're really excited to be able to highlight it, to make sure that kids out there -- I have a senior who is in this process of figuring out what to do with the rest of her life. I know you guys are nervous, and feeling pressure and tension. But relax. You live in America. We've got a lot of great options, and we just want to make sure students know all the options that are available to them.

MS. WILLIAMS: I'd love to pose the question to the rest of the panel. President Hetherington, why would you say so?

DR. HETHERINGTON: Well, Mrs. Obama, you did such a fine job of articulating why. It's kind of difficult to figure out what you missed because you really did such a lovely job of that.

One of the things that you talked about was the affordability of community colleges. And the other thing is that you have a quality education at a community college. So you're getting a quality education at an affordable prices. The programs here -- many of the students here will be transferring to four-year institutions. So we have agreements with four-year schools that you can map out what you need to do your first two years to get your associate's degree, and then have a seamless transfer to your junior year in college.

And I'll tell you a little story. I am a community college graduate. And when I was a senior in high school, I really wanted to go to Penn State. Really, really wanted to go. And my parents were very encouraging; they said, "That's great, but we don't have any money." I was the oldest of six children. And so they had just started up a community college near where I lived, and that's where I got my start.

I did my first two years at a community college, and then I entered as a junior, all my credits accepted. And I saved my parents thousands of thousands of dollars.

So that's one message -- because I hear over and over from young people, "How am I going to afford this? I can't do it." But the community college is a very viable option.

MS. WILLIAMS: Trecya, what influenced your decision?

MS. JORDAN: So I'm a Howard County student, like all of you. I've grown up here forever. I, like Mrs. Obama and President Hetherington said, my main focus was financial situations, like I'm sure everyone here has gone through. Also, I know that HCC has a really good -- how do I say this -- a really good curriculum, there we go. And I know it's competitive to any four-year school. Like, I'm in the nursing program, this is my second year. I'll be graduating in May with my RN, and I know that after I leave here I'll have a job.

So it's not like I'm going to a four-year university and I'm staying four years. It's only two years and I'll have -- be making $50,000 when I get out of school, and helping my parents pay back my tuition.

MS. WILLAIMS: So let's jump into the first question from the audience. We have Anthony, with a question to Mrs. Obama. Where's Anthony?

Q: Right here.

MRS. OBAMA: Hey, Anthony.

Q: Hello. So I'm from Howard High School. And my first question for you is: When considering colleges, how do you know which one is the best choice for you?

MRS. OBAMA: We are talking about this in my household every night, every night. And there's really no magic formula. I mean, it is a very individual decision.

So I would just encourage you to do your research. And what does that mean? It means if you have an opportunity to visit colleges, go on campuses, sit in on some of the courses, talk to professors, talk to alums, talk to students. That's the way you're going to get a feel for what's it like to be in this community; does it feel like it fits me.

There's no one answer. And the thing that I want you all to remember is that there are thousands of choices out there. I mean, a lot of times seniors, students get caught up in the notion that there's the one school I have to go to, it's a brand name, it looks like this, and if I don't get in my life is over. And the fact of the matter is, is that we live in a country where there are so many options for getting a great education. So don't get locked in on one particular sort of view of yourself.

And I would encourage people to try to get onto campuses if you can. And that may not be an affordable option, but more and more colleges are offering virtual tours. We're actually in the process of recording a virtual tour. You've got organizations like Essence that are trying to do as much to get kids the information they need to know about what colleges are like, and doing the college tours.

So read up on that. Go on websites. Do your research. And then in the end, it's kind of just what do you feel here? It's kind of going to be a gut decision. And you'll be fine. You're going to be okay. (Laughter.)

MS. WILLIAMS: Our next question if from Katherine (ph), and it's also to Mrs. Obama.

Q: Hello. Nice to meet you all. My name is Katherine, I'm from Oakland Mills. And my question is: When is a good time to start filling out applications for scholarships and the FAFSA?

MRS. OBAMA: The sooner the better. And I want everybody to jump in, too, so feel free.

But what I encourage students to do, what we're doing in my household, is make a plan. College is something that -- the process of applying to college requires some forethought and some planning. So what does that mean? You've got to know your deadlines. You've got to figure out little things like do you need to take the SATs, or the ACTs, or the PSATs, or whatever. Have you taken them, do you know the deadlines for them? When do you have to apply? Where can you sit for them? How much do they cost? Can you afford to take them?

You have to start answering those questions ahead of time. You've got to figure out what kind of prerequisite courses you need to take. Do you have your letters of recommendation lined up? Do you need to write a personal statement? All that stuff is going to be different for every school that you apply to, so you need to do the research and figure out what the schools you want to go to -- what are they asking for, when do they need it.

And make a plan, and put it on a calendar. Because I know -- hey, look, I know you guys. Time slips away and you look up and it's like, oh, my God, did I miss the deadline? So you really have to be diligent about laying out that plan for yourself.

And again, I know we're going to talk about this, but FAFSA, FAFSA, FAFSA. Those financial aid forms -- you've got to fill those out. The deadlines for them vary from every state, but they're available beginning in January. And this is the ticket to gaining access to millions of dollars in scholarships provided by the government. But you're only eligible if you fill out those forms.

So that's one of those things you've got to put on your plan, right? You've got to find out -- if you haven't heard of FAFSA, if your college counselors aren't talking about it -- which I'm sure many of them are -- find out about this stuff. And then look online. Ask questions about financial aid and scholarships.

You've got to dig for this stuff. A lot of times it's not just going to pop up and fall in your lap. You've got to ask questions. And I know that the president would welcome any high school student to come here and ask questions, and talk to the admissions officers to get some tips and things like that. So it's a plan.

DR. HETHERINGTON: And I would add to that -- that's an excellent answer -- I would add that -- make sure when you decide where you want to go that your financial aid officer is your new best friend, because you can get a lot of free information. You don't have to pay for this. But keeping in contact with them -- because besides the federal aid, many colleges and universities have their own aid through their endowments through their foundation, so there's other scholarships that you can apply for.

And financial aid officers also know what scholarships could be available that are tied into your major course of study. So check online. I would say that's your first step for deadlines, as Mrs. Obama said, especially for FAFSA. The government is doing everything it can to make it easier. I think it's the next year's application you'll be able to use what they call prior-prior information, which will be making it easier for parents to apply. They'll already have their tax forms; it's not like they have to wait for them to go through the process.

So things are getting better, but online and financial aid offices -- many of them, like Howard Community College, have financial aid workshops that we advertise. And so you're here, you'll be hearing about that. So I hope you'll come.

MS. WILLIAMS: Esther (ph) has a question for president Hetherington.


Q: Hello. I actually have two questions.

DR. HETHERINGTON: Oh, boy. I might need help.

Q: So the first one is, what colleges are available to attend with a low GPA? And will it be harder to find a college when you have a low GPA?

DR. HETHERINGTON: Well, you know, they vary. All colleges will vary. And I know some people are concerned about maybe their SAT scores aren't where they need to be.

Usually what will happen is that many of the colleges will post, like, a minimum GPA that they're looking for. But they also look at other variables when it comes to your application. It's not solely GPA. They're looking at other things that you bring as far as your whole package. So I think that's one thing that you have to be mindful of. And talking to the admissions officer where you're planning to go is one thing.

Now, for community colleges, community colleges are open admissions. So basically, the GPA, unless you're applying for a select program, will not come into play. So you can start out at a community college -- we do have courses at community colleges that help if you need to get like extra help in math or English to bring you up to college level. They're called developmental or remedial classes. We have those. But as I said, for community college, open admissions. So it won't be as much of a challenge.

I'll mention the SATs, too, because I know a lot of students are concerned about that; they feel like, oh, my SAT is not high enough. Well, many schools -- many colleges are moving away from using the SATs, even Ivy League colleges. Again, they're looking at that whole package. They want to see everything that you bring. What kind of student are you going to be, is there a fit, are you going to enhance the campus environment.

So don't be too worried about that. But you are in your senior year now? So you're going to work to get that GPA higher, right? (Laughter.) Okay.

MS. WILLIAMS: Jaylen (ph) has a question for President Hetherington, as well.

Q: Hello. My question is, what are some of the factors that truly help a college applicant stand out beyond just what the college requires you to send in?

DR. HETHERINGTON: Okay, a lot of that -- again, I would take a look at the particular college, and even talk to them. Why not talk to the people that are going to do the assessment of your admissions application? Because then that will help you in highlighting certain important factors that you have in your portfolio, in your background.

And sometimes it depends on the major that you're going in. So maybe the major you're going in -- maybe you've done volunteer work in your community about that and you can talk about that. Maybe you've had a leadership role in your high school that you can talk about. That's why getting involved is so important, because that shows that you're stepping out from the crowd, you're different from everybody else. You're going to be bringing 100 percent-plus.

And so those are the things -- you have to look at your own resume. What is it that you bring? And I would suggest that you talk to your high school counselor and ask for help. So you know, here's what I think I should be doing -- because they help students. And you all have high school counselors -- and even your faculty at your high school can be of help to you.

Also, as I said, check with the college and keep in mind whatever your major is. If you're not sure about the major, that's okay, too. A lot of people aren't sure about what they're going to major when they start at college or university.

MRS. OBAMA: And I just want to add that colleges are looking for your authentic story. So don't be afraid to point out your struggles, your challenges, the things you had -- have had to overcome. A lot of times people think that colleges are looking for that perfect student who is the head of this, and has the straight GPA, and was on every extracurricular, was the captain of the football team.

But colleges are looking to diversify their populations. They know that creating a good academic environment means that you need a lot of voices from a lot of different people with many, many different experiences. So don't downplay the parts of you that make you unique. You want to play that up.

And also, remember that when you're applying, the admissions committee is trying to figure out, can you write? Can you spell? Can you follow directions? Are you neat? So don't underestimate that. Spell-check your stuff. Check the grammar. (Laughter.) Make sure that it makes sense. Have somebody else proofread it, because I know -- I can't completely proofread everything. I miss the mistakes if I've read it too much. Have somebody -- a friend, a parent, a teacher -- review your application to check for those little things.

So know that you don't want to take that stuff for granted, because they're trying to -- when they read your personal statement, they're trying to figure out what kind of writer you are, how creative are you, do you have a voice, do you have a unique way that you express yourself. All that stuff is important in the process, as well.

MS. WILLIAMS: Trecya, I want to put you on the spot a little bit. What were some of the things in your college application process that you think put you over the edge? What were some parts of your story that you played up, aside from your GPA and things like that?

MS. JORDAN: Well, to Esther, I actually didn't have a good GPA. So I applied here because I knew I didn't -- nobody had to look at me like that. So I think that you have to show, yes, you made a mistake, but you show how you came back from that mistake. It's best to show that I can do better, I'm doing better, I'm improving, I know how that I messed up. But for them to see your improvements and you to tell them "I improved," that's a good thing. Because they don't want anybody that is just mediocre. They want you to go above and beyond. And regardless if you're going to community college, a four-year university, show that I'm going to take the extra mile, I'm going to go the extra step.

MS. WILLIAMS: And Mr. Snelgrove, how important for you as an employer is it to see a student's progress throughout the years, and like Trecya was saying, that progress that they make over the years?

MR. SNELGROVE: Well, when I look into this audience, I bet about half of them were born at Howard County General Hospital. (Laughter.) And many of their parents probably work here. When I look at students who are coming in and doing their preceptorships with us, we look at their ability to demonstrate perseverance, to overcome the struggles that may have brought them to the table.

But if they have character, if they demonstrate compassion and integrity and empathy to the patients and families that they serve, then the sky is the limit for these students coming out of the community college system. Where you start is not where you end. It's up to you. And we help you along the way by giving you offers of scholarships and giving you challenges to demonstrate that you can great employees. And I look forward, frankly, to seeing many of you staying in Howard County and coming to work with us in the future.

MRS. OBAMA: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between the hospital and the college? Because this is also important for students in considering community colleges -- the strengths, the opportunities that often don't exist with four-year colleges.

DR. HETHERINGTON: Well, many of our students in the health fields have to do their clinical placements. And they love working at Howard County General because they can -- they don't have to move their car, for one thing. (Laughter.) Parking is an issue. They can just walk right across and work at the hospital. And they know that they have an opportunity once they complete their associate degree, nursing degree, get their RN, that they can be employed. And it's a great chance for you to shine for people who will possibly be your future boss, right? So that's -- (laughter) -- hint, hint.

MR. SNELGROVE: She already has.

DR. HETHERINGTON: So that's a real plus that we have. And we have relationships with -- in terms of the health sciences throughout the region. So it's Howard County and the region. So our students are working throughout the region, not only in nursing, but all the other health programs that we have.

We do a similar kind of thing with other career industries. Take cybersecurity, which is very big in this area. We have students doing their internships with cyber companies. We actually have cyber companies coming in to assess our curriculum to make sure that it's current. And it's reviewed every 18 months because things are changing so rapidly in that field. And they love our students. They come in and they talk to our students, talk to them about making sure you do everything right so that when time comes for a clearance, you've been a good person, so that keeps you in check.

So the hospital has been a wonderful partner with us, and we are so appreciative of the support that we get from the hospital.

MR. SNELGROVE: And if you think of a hospital, they're like a small community. We're not just doctors and nurses. We're accountants. We're nutritionists. There are so many different fields that you can pursue in a hospital. And where you start is just the beginning.

So I would encourage you to come over and visit us sometime, to walk through the facility -- not as a patient, but as a visitor. (Laughter.) And you can talk to lot of our staff. And I'm sure they would love to help you understand what it's like to be a nurse; what it's like to be a doctor. And you know that some of these paths are a number of years in the future, but you know there's a lot of support on the way.

And the good thing is, health care is not going away, right? Health care will be with you your entire life. So there is going to be a lot of jobs with the bubble of the baby boomers coming in and retiring. Howard County, we're kind of aging in place a little bit. So there's going to be tremendous opportunities for you to stay in your own community where you grew up -- amazing community -- and work at your local hospital. We'd love to have you.

MRS. OBAMA: So for those students who think school is not for me -- I really want to get out there and work, I really want to start living in my own apartment, paying my own rent -- I don't know why you're rushing into that. (Laughter.) But there are students out there who are trying to get there fast. Community college is one of those ways to do it.

You come in, you get your training. You train for a job that oftentimes actually exists. You get internships and make connections. You do it in a short period of time at a low rate of cost; affordability is key. Why would you not explore this? So just think about all the kids out there who graduate from high school or stop. Or they think, I don't like high school, so they don't bother to create a plan for themselves for after high school because they think school is not for me. This is why we need to educate all of our young people on why high school is not where you end; it is just the next step to being able to have the freedom and the control in your life that you want because you'll have the training and education to get a job and pay your bills, and do all the things that you think you want to do now but you can't afford because you're a kid and you have no money. (Laughter.) Get an education. And there are many, many ways to do it.

MS. WILLIAMS: Out next question is from Lucy (ph) to Mrs. Obama.

Q: Hello, my name is Lucero Espinal, and I'm senior at Oakland Mills High School. And my question is, connecting back to what Mrs. Obama said about educating others, what can we do in our community to help serve others on pursuing another higher education?

MRS. OBAMA: Keep reaching back. You all are mentors today. Mentors don't look like me and the presidents here. They really are you. Because if you think of who your little cousin, your little brother, the neighbor down the street, who they're looking up to, they're actually looking up to you. You all are the coolest things in their center, in their world, because you all are the big kids.

So realize that you have the potential to impact somebody in your community's life. So talk to them about these options. Be that mentor. Be that person that they can call to say, what should I do after high school?

All these questions that you're asking us, you will be experts at this stuff in a year from now. So use that expertise and reach out to folks in your family, in your community, and start talking to them young. Start talking to your nephews and nieces and little brothers and sisters about how important it is to graduate from high school, and how much fun it is, and how many opportunities are out there waiting for them. Do it now. Be that role model for them, okay? That's how we're going to get back to number one in the world in education. And we're not going to do it with folks -- everybody trying to be a baller or a rapper or a reality TV show person. That's just not going to cut it. This is the ticket. This is the best investment that you can make in your future, and it's the most certain.

And even if you want to do all that really cool entertainment kind of stuff, you need something to fall back on. And nursing, medical professions, you will always have a job -- and a job that pays really well, and a job that allows you to have flexibility. (Laughter.) Yes!

MS. JORDAN: Best profession ever. And it's fun. And you learn something new every day. It's not like you're stuck in your -- whatever career that you pick. It's an opportunity for you to be taught every day. Every day you go to work, every day you come to school, it's something different. Every patient is different. How you handle situations, it's different.

DR. HETHERINGTON: Tell them what you want to do long term.

MS. JORDAN: Long term, I would like to be a nurse anesthetist, which is getting my CRNA, or now, a DNP in anesthesiology. So this is just my beginning. I would like to work at Howard County General. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: This is an excellent job interview right here. (Laughter.)

MS. JORDAN: I feel really, really, really blessed right now. I want to work at Howard County General and go to University of Maryland to do their BSN to DNP program. Knock it out. That's another thing -- once you start school, don't finish -- don't stop, keep going. Because once you stop, it's harder for you to start back. Just go straight through.

MS. WILLIAMS: Very well said. Our next question is from Priya (ph) to President Snelgrove.

Q: Hi, I'm Priya from Centennial High School, and my question is, will I be able to find a job after college?

MR. SNELGROVE: I think you've heard -- health care is in the midst of significant change, and we don't just take care of people when they come into the hospital anymore. We're actually trying to keep this community healthy, well and disease-free. And in order to do that, there are so many jobs in health care outside of the hospital. You could work for a skilled-nursing facility, a home-health agency. You can work as a case manager, making sure that people who are discharged of the hospital get back home and get to their maximum level of function. You're going to have jobs for the rest of your life. You don't have to worry about that.

And the fact is, you can move -- as we talked earlier -- from one place to the other and find great diversity in your career. So I think you can rest assured that health care is here to stay. And fortunately now, many Americans are now insured because of Obamacare that weren't just a few years ago, and that's wonderful.

MS. WILLIAMS: And our last question is from Miriam (ph) to Mrs. Obama.

Q: Hi, I'm Miriam and I'm from Oakland Mills High School. And I wanted to know, what tips do you give your daughters about the college experience?

MRS. OBAMA: I think the President was talking about this the other day. You give tips, do they take it? (Laughter.) Mmm, we don't know, we just talk and talk and talk and talk.

The main thing that I'm trying to say to all seniors out there, because I run into seniors all the time and I know how you all feel. I mean, this is just -- I'm sorry. (Laughter.) I'm sorry that this is a time in your life where you feel pressure and you feel like everything is weighing on you and, ugh, I know you all are tired. But this, too, will pass. And you guys are going to be fine. Just as I said earlier, make sure you have a plan. And you've got to plan for life, too. I mean, that's not just about getting into college.

I mean, the President and I, we're still planning. You never stop planning. We've got to figure out, what are we going to do with our lives when we're done here. We're almost done, what are we going to do now? What do you do after this? You have to make a plan, figure out a timeline. We can't just walk out of the White House and -- we've got to find a place to live, we've got to figure a few things out. (Laughter.)

So it continues. So get in the practice of making those plans. Do your research. Ask for help. And I will say that again: Ask for help. Because when you get to your program, whether it's a two-year college or a four-year university, you're going to need to make new adjustments when you get there. And what you're going to have to do is make a plan, ask for help. Nobody expects you to know this stuff on your own. That's why you have counselors and advisors and mentors. That's why there are students like Trecya who are making themselves available to be an ear. But you've got to seek them out and actually take the help or ask for the help, because nobody will know you need help unless you say, I'm drowning, I'm afraid, and I'm scared. And it's okay -- you're supposed to be. And you're going to feel that way for a good another 10, 20, 30 years. I'm sorry. (Laughter.)

But it will be okay, because you all seem like really bright young people. You're here for a reason. And you're going to find a place that's going to work for you. And you will look back on this time and you'll wonder what you were so worried about. So it will be okay. All right? You guys will get through, you'll get into good programs and good institutions. You always have to work hard. So that's the only thing -- you can't be afraid of hard work, because in order to be successful in anything, it never just comes, it never just happens. Sometimes it looks like it's easy for some people -- oh, they're rich or they're famous, or they're this or they're that. No, everybody who is successful is working really hard a lot of the time.

And so don't be afraid of hard work and don't be afraid to fail, because that you will do, too. You are going to fail a lot in life. But as Trecya said, it's not about the failure, it's about the resilience -- how you bounce back, how you recover. That's the character that the President mentioned that all employers are looking for. They're looking for character. They're looking for stamina. They're looking for honesty. They're looking for things that you can't measure in a test score or solely in a grade.

So character is big. But then that means you have to be individuals of character, and sometimes that's hard to do. But set that as part of your plan and goal. Be a person of high character and high quality -- somebody who is not willing to shy away from tough things. And that will shine through. Those are the qualities that matter, and many of you probably already have them, right? You're just going to get better at.

So I wish you all luck. You guys are going to do great.

MS. WILLIAMS: I think that sums it up quite nicely. Thank you so much, everyone. (Applause.)

Thank you all for being here today. A special thanks to Mrs. Obama for joining us. Thank you, Howard Community College for hosting us. And we hope you have a great day.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the "Reach Higher" Community College Panel Discussion in Columbia, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321837

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