Published May 25, 2011
OXFORD, England – First Lady Michelle Obama used her own life as an example of how hard work and perseverance can prevail Wednesday as she spoke with students from a multiethnic school in an economically deprived area.
She told the girls touring the University of Oxford for the day that they have to battle low self-esteem and learn to stand up for themselves with confidence.
The message to the 35 students was that even elite universities like Oxford are within their grasp.
"We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, and you have the experience to succeed here at Oxford and at universities just like it across the country and across the world," she said. "By overcoming challenges you have gained strength, courage and maturity far beyond your years. And those qualities will help you succeed in school and in life."
The first lady, on the second day of a presidential state visit to Britain, traveled to the sun-drenched campus to meet with the students from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in London. The school, which the first lady visited in 2009, serves one of the most economically deprived areas in Britain and has a high rate of scholastic success despite the hardships its students face.
Its student body of 900 girls, more than 90 percent black or from ethnic minorities, speak 59 different native languages. Its exam results have been steadily rising, coming close to the national average despite the challenges.
Obama met with the students in a grand, stained-glass-lined hall that was used as a set for the wizarding school of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
The girls, in gray uniforms, were not shy with the first lady. They asked her questions about her husband, her daughters, and about her own battles with low self-esteem.
"I had doubts, I wasn't sure, because other people told me I might not be able to do well in school for whatever reason," she said. "I have doubts today, doubts don't go away, you just learn how to deal with them, you know yourself and become more confident and take more chances and don't let stumbles define you."
One girl asked if Obama had sensed that her husband would become president when they first started dating.
"I knew he was a special person," she said. "We worked together and I knew his work ethic. He was smart and low-key and he was funny and we joked a lot. He was cute. And he was a community organizer, I liked that. But no, I never thought he would be president."
Asked what her girls want to be when they grow up, Obama laughed and said Sasha and Malia want to do "the opposite" of whatever their mother does.
But she said she is pushing her daughters to excel and making sure they have responsibilities and "set the bar extremely high" for themselves.
"They know they have to work harder," she said. "I have to convince them it's not about getting As in school, it's about learning, loving learning. Try different things. Don't be afraid to stumble, Read, write, read, read. Our kids are learning that the first draft means nothing. You're going to do seven drafts, 10 drafts."
The first lady, whose husband narrowly bested Hillary Clinton in a bruising primary battle for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, told the girls in response to a question that the United States, like many countries in the world, is ready to elect a woman president.
"I think we're there," she said. "So now the challenge is our desire and willingness to step up and grab that ring. Our job as women is to envision ourselves as leaders and be ready for a good fight and a good battle."
The final questioner asked what Obama's life as first lady is actually like on a daily basis.
She said she slept in Buckingham Palace Tuesday night but by the weekend would be back home dealing with soccer schedules and homework.
"It's kind of cool," she said.
The students had spent the day immersed in the Oxford experience to learn more about what happens at one of Britain's elite universities.But Oxford has been slow to admit minorities — Prime Minister David Cameron said last month that more must be done to give a wider range of Britons access to Britain's top institutions.
Obama gave each of the girls a hug and a brief pep talk at the end of the session, which was followed by a group portrait before the first lady left for a dinner in London.