As part of a trip to London this week to mark the publication of her best-selling memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama visited Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School (EGA) in Islington. Several hundred teenagers packed the school gym where Obama talked on stage to three former students she had met on a previous visit, who are now excelling in their chosen fields from law to science. There was a lot of love and excitement in the room.
The former US first lady has a longstanding relationship with EGA – named for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a suffragist and the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon – and with Mulberry School, which was also represented at the event.
In her memoir, Obama writes about the impact of her 2009 visit. She maintained the relationship throughout the years, bringing some students to the White House and to Oxford University to hear her speak.
Addressing the students this week she said she “nearly broke into tears” when she saw that all the letters exchanged between her and the school through the years had been put on display.
I started to realise that the doubts I had in my head were all mine
The student body of both schools is diverse, and many students come from challenging backgrounds, with more than half receiving additional funding allocated to combat disadvantage.
“I’m so proud of you all,” Obama told the audience of girls aged between 11 and 16. “You move and inspire me.” She talked to the students about education, career, relationships and life and offered the following advice to young women and girls everywhere:
Get out of your own way
“I was always the student who wanted to get As, who wanted to do well. Being one of those kids in a community where not everybody had those goals I found myself having to contend with ‘how do I get my education when I am surrounded by people who have different expectations of me?’ When I told my high-school counsellor I wanted to go to Princeton that counsellor told me: ‘I don’t think you are Princeton material.’
“That cut me in a way that even though I continued on and got in to Princeton, I remember that feeling of doubt another adult placing a barrier on me . . . I, like many others, walked into that school with a stigma in my own head.
“More young people nowadays call it imposter syndrome. Kids like me feel like they don’t belong, so they feel like they are faking it. I started to realise that the doubts I had in my head were all mine.
My expectation for all of you is that you find a way to mentor
“I had to work to overcome that question I always ask myself: ‘Am I good enough?’ That’s the question that has dogged me for a good part of my life. Am I good enough to be the first lady of the United States? Many women and many young girls from all backgrounds walk around with that question in our heads.
“How did I overcome it? Hard work. I put my head down and I let the work speak for itself. I still do that. I still feel at some level I have something to prove because of the colour of my skin, because of the shape of my body, because of how people are judging me.
“It takes some time and it takes some maturity to start having some successes under your belt where you realise, yes, in fact I am good enough . . . so I had to get out of my own way first of all and realise I belonged just as much as anyone else.”
Be mentored and be a mentor
“I mentor because I was mentored. One of my heroines, Marian Wright Edelman, said: “Service is the rent you pay for being. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.
“I didn’t get here on my own or because I was some kind of miracle kid that had magic dust sprinkled on me . . . people invested in me, they saw potential in me, they held their hand out and showed me the way. I am a product of the generosity of other people’s mentorship. . .
“One of the reasons I started the mentorship programme in the White House was to show that everybody has the time to mentor, even the president of the United States. Everybody in the White House was connected to people on a regular basis, from the chief of staff to the secret service. It doesn’t take that long and in a short time you can have an impact on another person.
“My expectation for all of you is that you find a way to mentor. Continue to look for mentors in your life. I still look for help. Anybody who knows more than me? I’m going to sit them down, and they are going to become my friend. I always ask for help.”
Find out who you want to be, not what you want to be
“One of the challenges that formal education places on young people is you are told to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. You are given titles . . . a finite set of them. Lawyer. Teacher. Researcher. You learn those titles. And then you do the work to get to those titles. And then you get jobs and have careers.
“What I learned was none of that has anything to do with necessarily who I am. What do I care about? How do I want to wake up and invest my time every day? What brings me joy? What makes me sad? We don’t teach that in school. But I learned to try to find that for me and turn that passion into my career and that’s when I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer.
I was surrounded by strong women and strength shows up in so many ways
“I’d never taken the time to figure out why I was going to law school. I was going to law school because I thought I should be a lawyer. Not because that’s who I was. It wasn’t that work filled me up.
“So I had to learn how to do that and that recquired networking and exposing myself to more people and other opportunities and as a result of that I became an assistant to the mayor, then I went on to run a non-profit organisation.
“I went on to be an associate dean at a university then I went on to be a vice-president at a medical centre and my life started opening up in ways I’d never predicted because I started asking myself that one simple question – not what did I want to be but who did I want to be?”
Find strong female role models
“Female role models were critical. I was surrounded by strong women and strength shows up in so many ways. The strong women in my life were my mother and aunts and my grandmothers, people who got up every day and worked and sacrificed and showed me love and filled me up with so much knowledge just based on common sense and the people they were.
“My mother is the most important woman in my life without a doubt, and she is a source of strength. She moved her life to the White House – something she would never have wanted to do. This was not her idea of something great to do, but she did it because once again she was sacrificing to support me and to support our daughters in a way that she has done all my life.”
And strong male role models
“The men in my life played an important role in making me a strong woman. I had a father and a brother who respected me and didn’t treat me as a princess. They treated me as an equal from an early age. My brother learned to box, I learned to box along with him. I was equal and I felt that. Don’t downplay the importance of men holding young girls in high regard . . . that is an important role.
“Sometimes men think strong girls are made, that they come from strong women. The truth is strong girls come from strong men too, and that played a huge role in me feeling safe and secure and also having a high bar for the kind of man I wanted in my life.
You are a better partner if you work on yourself
“My father showed how he treated me and how he treated my mother, and I married Barack Obama, who is the same kind of man to me and to my daughters. You can’t underestimate the important role that solid presence has.”
Nurture the sisterhood
“We need to start practising sisterhood as early as we can. As women we don’t have the luxury of tearing each other down. There are enough barriers out there, there are enough people waiting to tear us down.
“So our job, as much as we can because nobody is perfect, is to do our best to lift each other up and to do that you have to start practising now in your friendships with other people.
“There is no room for mean girls and cliques and social complications that naturally come at your age. I want you all to be mindful of that as you grow and start practising that now with one another. Find somebody who is struggling and help them. Don’t pull them down, don’t put your foot on their neck. You see another girl alone and isolated; keep that part of your heart open. One thing we can do better as women is to take better care of each other, and I hope you are all practising that.”
Choose your relationships wisely
“Love doesn’t fix the problems that you have inside. You are a better partner if you work on yourself. If you know who you are. If you know how to earn your own living and to take care of yourself so if something goes wrong you can be in control. The relationship doesn’t fix or mend the holes that individuals have.
“Being out there and going to college and learning about yourself and trying new things, all of that makes you a better partner in whatever relationship you choose to be in. Because you will have explored yourself in ways that will help you add value.
“But conversely you have to pick a partner who is whole. You can’t fix a broken person just because you love them. They have to do that work. I picked somebody who would be willing to work on himself. And work on us. And not just think that ‘it’s your work to do’. So, choose wisely I would say. Choose wisely.”
Becoming by Michelle Obama is published by Penguin Random House