Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Urban Alliance Youth Event in Chicago, Illinois

July 18, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Good morning, you guys.

STUDENTS: Good morning.

MRS. OBAMA: I am thrilled to be here. I mean, in addition to giving me an excuse to come home and sleep in my own bed -- (laughter) -- it's really a treat for me to spend time with you guys. And I'm really looking forward to hearing from you. I'm not going to talk long. We will talk and discuss, and I hope you guys let your guards down and we can just really talk, and answer questions.

But I also want to hear about your experiences as interns -- how it has changed your world view, your vision about what kind of life you can have for yourself; what have been the challenges; what would you tell other young people in similar situations; how would you guide the next generation. I'm going to -- a nice conversation.

But I want to take this time to congratulate everyone involved with Urban Alliance, particularly the staff I know who worked so hard to make this happen, and people who are so committed: to all the funders, to the business leaders who have made these internships possible, to you all students for having the courage to step outside your comfort zones. That was probably initially pretty scary. I know that feeling. I was you guys -- I say that all the time -- living on the South Side, looking at these buildings, wondering what it was like to work in those offices, finding real opportunities for myself, when I didn't have networks or connections.

So this is a very special program. And I wanted to be here because I want all the business leaders and community leaders around the country to understand that this is part of the answer. Programs like these are the answer in so many ways to stemming the tide of violence for kids in so many communities, giving them an opportunity to envision a world outside of gang banging and hanging on the streets, dropping out. You have to be able to envision a different life for yourself, right, to know what's out there, to know what's going on downtown in order to know what you want to work for.

So there should be programs like this in every corner of this country. We have the resources. We've got the leadership. We have the knowhow. We have the model. So now we have to ramp it up. So I wanted to be here to highlight what you all are doing, because you all are the models for what we could see in cities all across this nation. So I'm so proud of you all and I'm looking forward to talking to all of you. So get your talking juices up. (Laughter.)

But I also want to congratulate my dear friend Amy Rule for her strong support of this initiative from the very beginning. When I -- I've known Amy for a while, and she's always talked about this, the work here. She's always been invested. And as First Lady of this city and as a mother, as a professional, as a smart, sharp woman, she of all people knows the value of this kind of investment in our young people. And I'm so proud of her for taking this on. Because there is no better voice, and Amy knows that we all have to use our positions to lift up programs like this. And you all are going to have to do the same thing because you all are headed for great places.

So we all have to use our positions, that spotlight we have, that platform, to help show young people around this country that there's so much to dream for. So I want to thank Amy -- so proud of you. And I'm going to turn it over to you to get things started. (Applause.)

MRS. RULE: Thank you, Mrs. Obama. It's a privilege to welcome you to Urban Alliance and to introduce you to our first class of Chicago interns. And as you've heard, our inaugural year has been a great success. All of our students have graduated from Chicago public high schools and they all will be continuing their education this fall. We're thrilled about that. (Applause.)

It's been a rewarding year, and we all take great pride in all of your accomplishments and your hard work. And I know it was a lot of hard work and a lot of hours. We've really been so proud to watch all of you, for example -- including, for example, watching Ron (ph) develop an interest in pursuing law, having interned at Skadden; watching José (ph) assume real responsibilities in the world of banking at BMO Harris. And these young people here today would not have had these fabulous opportunities without the yearlong training and guidance of our fabulous and talented Urban Alliance staff, who you were able to meet.

So I'm also very deeply grateful to the 60 Chicago companies who agreed to host our first group of interns and mentor them throughout the course of the year and continuing through this summer. When I look at all of you today, it's hard for me to believe that you are the same group of young people that I met just about a year ago, in your low-slung jeans -- (laughter) -- colorful hair, some creative piercings. (Laughter.) I'll leave it at that, but there's more. (Laughter.)

So today, you all look amazing. You really do. You've all grown into young professionals who have the training and the work -- the real-world work experiences that I hope will open doors for you for the rest of your lives. And I'm so proud of you.

I could speak for a long time, but we all want to hear from you so we're going to turn to Steven O'Neal, who has been interning this year at Walgreens, and he'd like to tell us a little bit about his experience with Urban Alliance.

Steven. (Applause.)

MR. O'NEAL: Thank you, Amy. I'd also like to say that I welcome you, Mrs. Michelle Obama. We all appreciate you coming here today, flying from D.C. all the way out here for us.

MRS. OBAMA: It's okay. (Laughter.)

MR. O'NEAL: As Amy has already told you, my name is Steven O'Neal, Jr. I worked with the Walgreens Corporation through the Urban Alliance program, within the social media department. In the social media department, I had the pleasure of creating my own company competitor analysis through PowerPoint presentation form, and I've even seen my own personal ideas go into work on the Walgreens Facebook page. (Laughter.)

But before I go into details about my internship, I'd like to tell you personally my top three moments in my life, the first one being the birth of my son, Steven O'Neal III.

MRS. OBAMA: How old is he now?

MR. O'NEILL: He's eight months. The second being the first day he called me daddy. And the third, I believe, would be this moment right here with you all in this room. Because where I come from, a lot of black men are looked down upon as we won't make it in life; all we want to do is run the streets and sell drugs. Well, that is completely wrong. I'm proud to say that I graduated on time from Percy L. Julian High School. (Applause.)

During my internship at the Walgreens Corporation, through the Urban Alliance program, I've learned many, many very important things. The first thing that I learned was how to dress myself professionally. (Laughter.) Someone -- okay, a lot of people say not to judge a book by its cover, but as I walk through this room dressed as a young business African American professional, I was treated and respected as one.

The second thing that I learned was punctuality. Someone who is not on time is not dependable, and someone who is not dependable is otherwise expendable, because time and presentations wait for no one.

The third thing that I learned was communication. Someone who is honestly sick can lose out on a good job and great career opportunities just because they didn't inform their superiors that they were sick.

During my school year, I had the pleasure of working from 2:00 to 5:00, making $8.25 an hour, working four days a week. But now, I'm proud to say through blood, sweat and tears and -- (laughter) -- performance evaluations, I'm now making $10 an hour working from 9:00 to 5:00, four days a week. (Applause.)

Before the Urban Alliance program, I didn't have any plans to go to college or I didn't really know what I wanted to do in life. But now, I'm proud to say that I will be attending Malcolm X College to be certified as an emergency medical technician so that I can become a firefighter. (Applause.) The two things that encouraged me to become a firefighter is, one, I want to be able to support my family, and two, I wanted to choose a career where I knew that my son would be proud of his father for going into it. (Applause.)

Before the Urban Alliance program came into my life, I really didn't know what I was going to do, though. I've seen a lot of kids go down a different route. Living in this city and the bad neighborhoods that we all live in, it's hard to keep our minds focused on the good things. That's why I thank God for the Urban Alliance program and my program coordinator, Ricardo Hernandez, and my mentor at the Walgreens Corporation, Samantha Ogborn, because those two people have instilled in me that only through education can I attain my future, and that I can always do better than even my best.

I thank God for the program and these people because without them, I don't believe that I would be the man that I am before you, and I believe what they've done for me, they can do for anyone in this nation.

Thank you. (Applause.)

MS. RULE: Thank you, Steven. That was wonderful, we appreciate you sharing that. Now, I think we're going to turn to Briana behind you to ask the first question of Mrs. Obama. (Applause.)

Q: My name is Briana Miller. I'm an intern at Burson-Marsteller PR Firm, and I will be attending Trinity College in Harper Connecticut come next month. Like yourself, Mrs. Obama, I come from a modest background -- I was raised in subsidized housing on Chicago's South Side, and my family always put education first. I went to an elementary school that was conducive to my thirst for knowledge, but attended a high school that was on probation.

MRS. OBAMA: What high school?

Q: Dunbar Vocational Career Academy. But despite that, I worked hard and was blessed enough to get into Trinity College. And just knowing the challenges that come along with being an African American woman in low-income living, and being admitted to a school where the majority of students are from the opposite end of the spectrum, what words of wisdom might you have for a young lady who is dedicated to success but sometimes not quite sure of herself?

MRS. OBAMA: Great question. Thank you, Briana. Well, first of all, congratulations on making it through Dunbar and getting into the college of your dream, very proud of you -- proud of all of you, again. What I would say -- I can clearly relate, because growing up on the South Side and then -- one minute on 74th and Euclid, the next minute in a dorm room at Princeton University -- which is probably the iviest of the Ivy League (laughter) -- it helped that my older brother was there, and that helped me just a little bit.

And that was really the only reason I even thought to apply to Princeton, because nobody was telling me to apply to Princeton. Nobody was saying, you are so smart and you're so on it, you should apply here. I applied because my brother got in, and as I said, I knew I was smarter than him. (Laughter.) So I -- it was clear. And he played basketball, so one of the reasons he was recruited was because he was a scholar athlete.

So he opened my eyes to the possibility of going -- reaching beyond even my wildest imagination. But that still didn't erase the fact that you go onto a campus where everyone is wealthy. I met the granddaughter of the person who the dorm was named after -- it was just like, really? (Laughter.) There was just a whole world of people and privilege and opportunity. I found out that you could actually study for the SATs, and people actually did. I was like, I didn't know that. (Laughter.) That would have been nice to know. There were just a lot of opportunities that kids like that had that I didn't even know existed.

But the thing that got me through was what got me in, which was finding my base of support there. So whatever you do -- when you get to Trinity, you want to replicate what you've done here. You don't want to -- don't feel like you have to change anything fundamentally about yourself. What's going to get you through Trinity is having a strong support system. And that can come in the form of friends around campus, because there will be a cohort of people that you will trust and you will identify with.

Know that you can't do this alone. You want to find teachers, you want to find advisors, you want to find -- one of my mentors was the woman who headed the Third World Center. She was such a terrific ally. I used to babysit for her, I used to have dinner over her house. She was just the adult in my life who just gave me that sense of home. So you would go onto campus and something would happen, and you could go over and talk to her and just let off steam and then get up and get back in there and get what you needed to get done done.

So know that you can't do it by yourself, and you don't have to. The mentors that you've created through this program -- take them with you. Because you just want to have a head's up. And there are a lot of people who can give you a sense of what college is going to be like, what dorm life is going to be like, how to structure your time and your courses. Don't be afraid to ask for help, and use your voice.

And what you will find is that you have so much more to contribute than you think. Your perspective on life is different from your classmates'. Your observations, your judgment will be different and many times better. So you don't want to suffocate that voice. You want to go in owning your experiences and your background.

That's one of the reasons why, as First Lady, I talk about my background -- because I'm proud of it. Growing up on the South Side; not having a lot of resources; struggling through some of the best schools; being one of a few black women in the room at a board room, at a table -- that has prepared me for this.

So I embrace my background. And I want all of you to do that no matter where you go. You do not turn your back on what got you here, okay? Because that is the thing that's going to get you through, all right? Does that help? You can do this, girl. You can do this. You got through the hard part. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Urban Alliance Youth Event in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320172

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