When Michelle Obama traveled to Cambodia last summer as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, she had a message for any girls facing barriers to education: Move beyond the “doubters.”
It is something the first lady says she herself faced growing up. “There were some teachers that I ran into who doubted that a girl like me — a black girl from the south side of Chicago — should apply to Princeton or could get into Harvard,” Michelle Obama said during a recent panel discussion at the American Magazine Media Conference.
Those cultural barriers — whether they be from within girls’ own families or their communities or their countries, along with messages that girls are not smart enough or good enough to go to school — are part of the reason why 62 million girls worldwide don’t have access to education, a number the first lady is trying to dramatically reduce as part of Let Girls Learn, the program she and the President launched exactly one year ago.
“As I told those girls in Cambodia, our job is to push past those doubters and to find those caring adults that see the positive in us because they are out there,” she said. “Because for all the people that told me I couldn’t do it, I had parents who believed deeply in my ability to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Now in her final year as first lady, Obama is more than comfortable injecting the personal into her messaging, and firmly believes that by sharing her personal story, she can connect to young girls everywhere.
“When you’re the first lady or you’re an actress, you’re larger in life to many girls living in poor communities, living in urban cities, not just here in the United States, but around the world. You seem untouchable,” she said, on a panel along with actresses Julianne Moore and Lena Dunham, and moderated by Lesley Jane Seymour of More magazine.
“And for me, it is so important for kids, in particular, to understand that I am them, they are me.”
Consequences of barriers are ‘devastating’
A big component of Let Girls Learn is raising awareness about the plight of adolescent girls worldwide who are not able to attend and complete school, something the first lady did again Tuesday in connection with International Women’s Day.
“I’m passionate about this because I truly see myself in these girls — in their hunger, in their burning determination to rise above their circumstances and reach for something more. And I know that many of you do, too,” said Obama during a speech in Washington marking the first anniversary of Let Girls Learn.