Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at a University of Cape Town Youth Event in Cape Town, South Africa

June 23, 2011

MRS. OBAMA: Well, hello! (Applause.) Please sit. Yes. You all look wonderful. Has it been a good day?


MRS. OBAMA: Yeah? Exciting? It's good.

Well, I want to start by thanking Vice Chancellor Price for, number one, that very kind introduction and for his words, but more importantly for all the work that he's doing at this phenomenal university.

I also want to send greetings and say hello and thank you to Dr. Ramphele. She is fabulous. (Laughter.) We got to talk outside. We could have been talking for hours, but we'll do that later. (Laughter.) But I am grateful to have her join us today and more importantly for her lifetime of leadership and sacrifice for this country. She is a true model. Her generation is the generation that we all will be standing -- whose shoulders we will stand on. So I am excited to have her talk to all of you.

But before I begin, I want to recognize yesterday's passing of Kader Asmal, and I want everyone here to know that the thoughts and prayers of my family and my country are with all of you as you mourn another of this nation's great anti-apartheid leaders.

As I just said, his generation fought its battles so that today's young people, all of you, no matter where you come from or what you look like, could have the opportunities to shape your own futures and the futures of this country and this world.

And that's why I like to talk with all of you young people, and that's what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk to you about opportunity, because whenever I travel as First Lady, my highest priority is to meet with young people just like all of you, because, number one, you're beautiful and handsome and really cool. (Laughter.) But whether I'm in London or Mexico City, Mumbai or Santiago, every time I visit with young people, I come away inspired. A lot of young people don't understand that, because people like us, we need to be inspired, too, and you all do that.

I come away with the same feeling that Robert Kennedy spoke of during his historic speech right here at this university 45 years ago. And he said -- and this is his quote -- "As I talk to young people around the world, I'm impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future."

And that's exactly how I feel. That's been my experience. I can see the same promise in all of you as I do in my own girls. That's what keeps me motivated. When I see you, I see them. When I see them, I see you. And I see it in the students that I've met all across my country in America, and in all of the young men and women I see as I travel around the world.

And I want to make sure that you all see that promise in yourselves. It's so clear to me and so many others. The challenge is to make sure you see it in yourselves. And that's why I thought it would be wonderful to have you all come here to the University of Cape Town, and so many other people thought so, too, right?

I wanted you all to have the chance to walk around this beautiful campus, right? It's beautiful here. As I was saying to one of my assistants, who wouldn't want to spend a few years here? Oh, what else are you going to do? It's beautiful here -- to meet the professors, to spend some time with some of the students.

I wanted you to see that the students here are really not that different from all of you. I wanted you to realize that you can fit in here, too. This is a place for you, because while this is an extraordinary university with top-notch programs and all kinds of famous alumni, getting into a school like this isn't some kind of magical process. And I've said this before. People always ask me -- how do you do what you do? It isn't magic. There is no magic dust that helps students succeed at a place like this.

Instead, nowadays it is really about how hard you're willing to work. It is about whether you're willing to stay focused and be disciplined. And more importantly, it is about first believing in yourself every step of the way.

And if you do these things –- and anyone can –- then I know that every single one of you can be successful at a university like this or anywhere in the world.

I've seen it again and again, including in my own life. I grew up in a little bitty apartment on the second floor of a house in one of the biggest cities in my country.

And when I was about your age, I started applying to universities -- I was a good student -- at least I thought I was -- my grades said I was -- including -- I applied to many of the elite schools in my country. And some folks didn't think that someone with my background could succeed at schools like that. Right? I mean, these people meant well. They were rooting for me. But they weren't really sure. And quite frankly I wasn't sure, either.

But I ended up getting accepted to one of those top schools. But even then, I still had doubts. Entering that university, I wondered whether I could really keep up with the students whose parents had graduated from some of the finest universities, students who grew up with all kind of advantages that I never had.

But once I got into the school and started meeting people, and attending classes and opening my mouth and exercising my brain, I realized that I was doing just as well, and in many cases, even better than so many of my classmates.

And I realized then for the very first time in my life that success wasn't about where you come from or how much money your family has. Success is about working hard and again believing that you can do it, and being able to envision that you can do it. You got to see yourselves here. And it's not enough to just want it. You have to see it and you have to work for it.

And you can look at anyone who's been successful –- and I'm sure there are successful people around you -- your favorite teacher, your coach, whether it's the top business leaders in your communities, your favorite artist or athlete, or even somebody like my husband. You know that guy. (Laughter.)

And you'll see that in them, as well -- that while they've taken different journeys -- because not everybody has the same path -- my husband's was probably a little bumpier. He wasn't a great student all the time. He goofed off a little bit. He didn't get serious about school until he got to university, because he had a different journey, a different experience. But what all of these people share is the belief in their own potential -- that's really the very beginning -- and having the determination to fulfill it.

And we can take the example of Mamphela, as well. She grew up in one of your country's poorest provinces. And it was a different time then. Very different. She had to enter her own church through a separate entrance. She had to do chores for the staff at her school. And her teachers wouldn't even shake her hand. All because of the color of her skin.

But that did not stop Mamphela. She went on to medical school, she became a doctor, she opened a community health center in an underserved area. And along the way, she stood up against apartheid, and because of that she went to jail. They banished her for years to a remote part of the country.

But they couldn't banish her spirit. She went on to found another medical clinic, a literacy program, a daycare center. And more importantly, she never stopped learning. She never stopped earning degrees, collecting fellowships and awards from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. And when she became vice chancellor here at UCT, she was installed by President Nelson Mandela himself. How powerful is that, huh? Isn't that hopeful? Isn't that good? Isn't that cool? (Laughter.)

So no matter what part of this world you come from, I said this yesterday, you can have an impact. Right? We saw that again and again with the folks in Mamphela's generation. They brought down apartheid, and in the years since they've made this country and they built it on a foundation of equality, freedom and democracy. And now millions vote in free and fair elections. The economy of this country is one of Africa's largest. It is the largest. This country shined under the world's spotlight at this year's World Cup.

And now, the rest of the world, including some of these people here, is looking to South Africa to be a leader in years and decades ahead. And when we say we're looking to South Africa, what we really mean is that we're looking to all of you. A lot of pressure, but you can handle it, because you guys are going to be the ones leading this nation in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. And you're going to be the ones who show the world what kids from the Western Cape can do.

So as you think about the years ahead, the goals you have for yourselves and the dreams you have for your country, I want you to know first and foremost that a lot of people believe in you. I believe in you. My husband believes in you. There are so many people in my country who believe in you, because what we know is that when you succeed, we all succeed. Right?

So I am eager to hear more about you. I know you've got some questions. We're going to talk. Speak loud. Don't be shy. Ignore them. Just pretend like they're not there. (Laughter.) And I am very proud of you, and I hope you had a wonderful day.

So with that, let us begin. Thank you. (Applause.)

DR. RAMPHELE: This is such a wonderful day for us to welcome my younger sister. She left these shores when she was a baby, and now today she's come home. And we are very proud to have my other sister here with us. (Applause.)

And you all heard how proud she is of you and what high expectations she's got of you. But I think you're going to have greater fun because you're going to put her on the spot. (Laughter.) You're going to ask her questions. Right?

And I think we're going to start with Zizipho. Zizipho has got a question for you, Michelle, and I think we should listen.

Q: Well, it is important for us to have people -- to have adults to look up to. Who is your role model, and why?

MRS. OBAMA: My role model honestly is my mother -- who is with me. And she always tells me, "Well, I didn't do anything to help raise you. You raised yourself." That's not true.

My mother is my role model because it's amazing to watch a woman or any individual -- if my father were alive, he would be among them -- who is able to push their kids beyond anything they could have imagined for themselves.

And my parents didn't get to finish college. They didn't get to spend much time on their educations. They went to work right away. They had fears and limitations in their lives because of the times that they were born.

But yet they never showed us that fear. They never used that to limit us. They never experienced wonderful universities. They didn't necessarily know how to direct us to be excellent. But they figured it out, you know?

And now that I'm a mother, I see how courageous and outstanding that was. This is my mother's first time in Africa. She never traveled much herself. She never thought of it. But yet here she is, probably so uncomfortable with all the attention. She lives in the White House. It's not something she would ever want for herself. But she will do everything she can to support me, to support my children, to support her son-in-law. And it's that kind of foundation that is greater than any degree that I could ever have. That is what sustains people. It's like having that kind of unconditional love.

So as you get older, know that the family you build is probably the absolute and most important thing you can do for the world. So never shirk on that responsibility. And you don't have to be great to build greatness. And that's what my mother taught me. And in so doing she is incredibly -- she's an incredible woman. She didn't really know it.

DR. RAMPHELE: Wonderful. So you hear how important mothers are. I feel a little bit more important than I did earlier on. (Laughter.)

We are now going to have a question from Jesse. Jesse comes from the Cape Academy school.

Q: My question is, how would you define success?

MRS. OBAMA: How would I define success? I read somewhere -- I'm sure somebody important said it, but some people say success is when opportunity meets preparation. Right? So I think one of the most important things you can be is prepared. And preparation means you have to have a good education, first and foremost.

There is just no -- there's no alternative, and there shouldn't be. And to have a good education means you have to work hard and you have to take your education seriously. You got to do your homework. Finish what you start. Be there. Be on time.

And the one thing I always say is that you have to practice success. Success doesn't just show up. And if you're not practicing success today, you won't wake up in 20 years to be successful because you won't have developed the habits of success, right, which is small things like finishing what you start; and putting a lot of effort into everything you do; being on time; treating people well.

You can get into the habit of just bad habits. So you'll have to practice it now so that you get into the habit of, well, this is naturally what I do. I put 120 percent into everything I do, even if it's washing my socks, right?

So -- and I think finally the last thing I think that defines success is being a good person, you know, because you can have all the money in the world and all the titles, and if you're just not good, you don't treat others well, if you're not ready to invest in something bigger than yourself, if you're selfish, you're never successful. So be a good person. And be prepared. Okay?

DR. RAMPHELE: Well, I think you have started very well, all of you here, by preparing. Being here is already the beginning of success.

We're going to hear from Mogamat Nur Marcus from Spine School.

Q: What advice can you give the youth today? What advice of a practical nature can you give the youth today in order to achieve their dreams?

MRS. OBAMA: What advice to achieve your dreams? It's similar to what I said in my comments: preparation and being able to envision your dreams.

What the Chancellor and I talked about is that if there are kids who never see a place like this, and if you don't even know that it exists, and there are many kids all over the world who don't even know this is possible, then how can you expect kids to work for it?

Kids rise to the bar they're given, and if the bar is low, what else can they do? So being able to raise your bar and envision your dreams is the beginning of it. And you all are blessed with people who are investing in that.

So now the next question is how do you pass that on? Because we have to multiply the advantages that some kids get, because not every kid in this country is getting that. So how do we multiply that? How can you be a part of expanding the vision of other kids in your lives, in your sphere of influence? How do you share this experience with other kids so that they can know, you know -- UCT, wow, that's a phenomenal place, and college is something that you should aspire to, and let me -- let's talk about the stories, let's talk about what's possible. I mean, you can be doing that now at your age with kids that are younger.

And that's how it builds, you know? I mean, that's really why I do what I do, not as First Lady, but I feel like I have a responsibility to multiply what I have, because I come from a background where I know there are kids just as talented as me from my neighborhood. They were just as smart. They had just as much potential. There's no way that I'm better than them. I just got -- I had a chance to see a vision that they didn't.

So I can't be content that somehow I'm First Lady, this means something, I did something special. No. I work hard. But I was lucky. I was blessed. I was fortunate, as well.

So how do I pass that on, because this isn't -- there shouldn't be a space that's limited. We're not competing with each other. We want to bring more people in, right?

DR. RAMPHELE: Great. Now you are all going to be the multipliers of success. So we are going to have great success.

Ngcokomfi Buhlali? You are from Sophumelela School. Great.

Q: Okay, I would like to know that -- how is the relationship between U.S.A. and South Africa, in terms of education?

MRS. OBAMA: The relationship? You know, first of all, I think the relationship between our two countries generally is strong because we share such a common history. But I think that there's greater exchange happening. I know that there are more and more young students from South Africa who are coming to the United States to get an education, and there are more and more students from the United States who are coming here to get an education, to serve in the Peace Corps, to teach, to work in communities.

And I think that that's the important beginning of the shared relationships between our countries. Again, it starts with young people, you all starting to get to know each other's worlds, and not being afraid to step in and out of it.

So that's another sort of challenge that comes your way in this generation, is that as you get your education here, how do you start beginning to think of yourselves as citizens of the world, too?

And I say this to young people in the United States, is that if you ever have the opportunity to go outside of this country and live for a moment, to work for a second, to experience something else other than your own culture and your own reality, that's where education begins for so many people. And that's true for all of you.

So you've got to envision yourself here. And then envision yourself in the world. Start -- keep thinking big. So you're going to come here, you're going to get your degree, but maybe right before you finish, you go to work, you think, I'm going to travel to another place. It doesn't have to be the United States. It could be somewhere else, just to expand your horizons and to keep building your own vision. And I think that our countries can start -- or expand on that process.

But the truth is we all have challenges when it comes to education. There's more work that we need to do. Every child in each of our countries should have equal opportunity for greatness and to learn, and we're all still working towards that goal. That's another one of the challenges, quite frankly, you all are going to have to figure out, and are going to have to help build on that.

DR. RAMPHELE: Well, there we have it.

Charné Behr from Oude Molen, what's your question?

Q: Do you still feel pressure being the first African American First Lady?

MRS. OBAMA: Do I feel --

Q: The pressure.

MRS. OBAMA: Pressure, oh, the pressure. I thought you said the "pleasure." (Laughter.)

The pressure. That's a really good question. I don't know if I feel pressure. But I feel deep, deep responsibility, and that -- sort of that practice habit I got into. I think whether I'm First Lady or whether I was a nurse or a mother, I feel like -- the pressure to be absolutely good at what I'm doing, probably so that I could make my parents proud, I could make myself proud, and I don't disappoint my country.

So I guess in a sense there is pressure, because I don't want to let people down, you know? I didn't necessarily run for office. I was actually trying to talk my husband out of running for office. (Laughter.)

But now that we're here, I want to be good because this is a big job, and it's a big, bright light. And you don't want to waste it. So I'm constantly thinking, how do I use this light? And, you know, the light is limited, fortunately, for a term or two.

So no matter what, it's short-lived. So how will I feel -- my husband and I, we talk about how will we feel when it's time to leave? We'll be fine leaving, but what will we have left, right? And will we feel like this was worth it? Everybody who voted, and looked up -- you know, will you guys -- I think about that. When I leave here, I think about, was this worth it for you? Is this going to matter?

So I guess, yeah, there's a little pressure because this is an opportunity that you can't waste. And I think some of that is the practice, because I felt that way when I was seven, probably. I see it in my kids, that sort of -- the practice of wanting to be excellent at what you do.

So there probably is a little pressure. There's probably a little bit. (Laughter.)

DR. RAMPHELE: I think a little pressure is very good for all of us.

Zandile from LEAP school.

Q: When choosing careers, we are -- whether -- live in a society where mostly men choose science careers. So how do you as a female make sure that your voice is heard?

MRS. OBAMA: We talked about this a lot yesterday with -- you know. It was funny -- not funny -- the forum yesterday -- the young women that were there -- so powerful, so vocal. I didn't have to say a word. I listened. I was like, that's so rare; it's good.

But I think the answer to that, for women, is, first of all, to use your voice. Use it. Again, there's no magic to it. You just have to decide, as a woman, as a young woman, that my voice is actually important.

And I think sometimes we as women are trained to, you know, just sort of be a little more quiet. We're going to let these sort of men talk and talk. Sometimes they don't know what they're talking about. (Laughter.)

But I think women, we check ourselves more. We're more inclined to wait a second; and maybe I shouldn't say it because I don't know it's 100 percent right; maybe I won't do it because I might fail; maybe I shouldn't compete because competing isn't polite.

There are a lot of things that we're just taught that keep us from using our voice. So to break that habit, you just have to start using it, right, and it's as small as when you are in class, ask a question, no matter what. Just open your mouth. Don't be afraid to be wrong.

I tell my girls this all the time, because I know that that's part of my issue as a -- I don't want to be wrong; what if I get it wrong; what if I embarrass myself?

Boys, you guys don't really care. You do boneheaded things all the time -- (laughter) -- and seem to recover from it, and you practice it, so you get good at it. It's like, yeah. You know, Sasha is like that. She talks about boys in the -- "Why do they keep talking? Why don't they listen?" -- because they can stumble a little bit, and you guys compete, and you're used to, you know.

I think young girls have to start practicing, just actually using your voices, and asking for help, and stepping up, and pushing a little bit to the front, and not waiting for somebody to tell you that it's okay.

DR. RAMPHELE: Well, you've got it. You've got it.

Vuyolwethu from Cape Academy. What's your question, my dear?

Q: Thank you, ma'am. Mrs. Obama, one of your most vital elements of your visit is youth leadership and development. My question to you is, how vital of a role do you think the youth of any nation contributes to its development?

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, it's absolutely critical. I spoke of this in my remarks because I believe it to be true. The changes that we need to make in this world are big, and they'll take time. So a lot of the things that our generations are working towards just will not be actualized in our lifetime, and it's not because the path isn't the right path. It's just that change is slow sometimes. Meaningful change is -- takes time.

So that means that we all may be laying the foundation for our children and our grandchildren. And just because we won't see it, doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing it.

You look at Mr. Nelson Mandela, right? I mean, I'm sure at some point during his detention he could have thought, man, this is a bad idea, huh? (Laughter.) I don't know if this is working out that well.

But he is 92; he will be 93 this year. And in his lifetime, just imagine -- because he has been fortunate enough to live that long, he has seen the full -- not the complete, but the huge impact of his legacy, and most people just don't get to see that. So he is blessed to know that it was worth it, right?

So maybe you don't live that long. But know that if you are doing the right thing, that in a generation or two or three, it will matter.

So that's where youth leadership comes in, because we are always passing the baton. You all are always in a position to come with new ideas and new realities. Some of the hurts and the wounds of the past, fortunately, you just haven't lived through. So you can perceive it differently, right?

That's why youth is important. Forgiving, moving beyond, not forgetting -- know your history, know the origins of the circumstance -- but adding your own experience and your voice. That's how we build nations. It starts with young people.

DR. RAMPHELE: Fantastic. So you guys are going to sort out all the issues that we failed to sort out.

Nuhaa Sentso from Spine school.

Q: How did you meet your husband, and what are his endearing qualities? (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: How did I meet my husband? (Laughter.) It's a good question.

Oh, how did I meet my husband?

DR. RAMPHELE: How did you meet your husband?

MRS. OBAMA: How did I meet my husband?

DR. RAMPHELE: Yes. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: There are a lot of people sitting up now. (Laughter.) I actually -- I met him -- we went to the same law school, but we went at different times. He is older than me, I have to point out.

But I went straight through law school, and I was working as a lawyer, so I was -- it was my first year as a lawyer, and my husband was just starting law school, but he got a job as an apprentice, or an intern, in my law firm. And I was his advisor -- which, as he points out, doesn't mean that I was supervising him. I didn't give him work -- which is true. It's actually true. I wasn't his boss, but I was sort of like his mentor, you know, helping him get adjusted.

And he asked me out. (Laughter.) And I first said no, because I thought, you know, we work together; that seems a little strange. But eventually I said yes because of all the things I said before. I saw the qualities. I saw him practicing good stuff in his life. Not a perfect person, but a person who was committed to something beyond himself; the fact that he wasn't just a law student who wanted to make a lot of money, even though he could. He was a community organizer. He had real passion about change.

And he added something to me. He added more to who I was. And I always say this to people. If you're going to have somebody in your life, whether it's a mate or a friend, make sure they add value to you, right, because part of that practice is who you surround yourself with.

And if you want to be great, you can't be hanging out with people who aren't practicing greatness, because they can pull you down. You want to be pulling people up along the way.

So Barack made me better. And hopefully he would say I made him better, too. Let's just say that. (Laughter.) I made him better. (Laughter.)

DR. RAMPHELE: So, guys, if you want to have beautiful wives, you better up your game, eh? (Laughter.)

And we have the last very tough question from Chad Bell from Oude Molen school. The toughest question of all.

MRS. OBAMA: Uh oh.

Q: I'd just like to know what are your favorite foods? (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: What -- I missed that. What --

DR. RAMPHELE: Your favorite foods.

MRS. OBAMA: My favorite? Oh, this is a tough one. It is tough -- (laughter) -- you know, because if I say something not healthy, people will be like, you aren't really committed to health. If I say something healthy, you know -- I do -- honestly, I like all kinds of foods. I like Italian food, I like Indian food, I really -- I like Mexican food. I love -- you know, it's hard to pick one.

No, if I picked one favorite, favorite food, it's French fries. (Laughter.) Okay? It's French fries. I can't stop eating them. (Laughter.) But eat your vegetables. (Laughter.) And exercise. (Laughter.)

But if that was our last question, one thing -- and I hope my staff doesn't lose their minds, but Mamphela, talk to these young people. Now, you're here. You're moderating. But I know you have words for these young people. Please.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at a University of Cape Town Youth Event in Cape Town, South Africa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320479

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