Photo credit: Chuck Kennedy
Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative was born out of a conversation between two old friends during the government shutdown of 2013. Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited Mrs. Obama to his office to discuss how she could use her bully pulpit to support students. Secretary Duncan and Mrs. Obama knew each other from Chicago. They had mutual friends and shared similar experiences growing up there. And both knew first hand that education was key to their success—and that higher education in particular was the most powerful investment anyone could make. Secretary Duncan encouraged her to share her story with students, especially those who grew up in communities a lot like hers. She agreed, and after the shutdown ended, staff set about planning a visit for the two of them to the Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington, DC, in November 2013.
Over the course of a few years, Mrs. Obama and Reach Higher hosted events across the country encouraging students to own their futures by completing their education beyond high school, whether at a two-year school, a four-year university, or through an industry-recognized certification program. She moved the needle on FAFSA completion and recognized school counselors for the first time at the White House. She was building an influential legacy that would resonate with students long after she left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But she knew it was not enough.
In February 2016, Mrs. Obama asked to visit small groups of students at schools in Washington, DC. She wanted to talk to kids in an “off-the-record” setting to get a sense of what they were feeling and to offer the advice she wished she had received as a high school senior. Most importantly, she wanted to impart to the students that if she could set her sights high and succeed, then any of them could do the same thing. She was no different than they, and she expected them to do great things.
She visited Paul Laurence Dunbar High School first, a school with a long, special history in Washington, DC, meeting with high school juniors and seniors who were surprised to see her walk into their school library. The students and teachers at the school were told that the school district’s chancellor was the guest of honor. Imagine their surprise when the first lady of the United States walked through the door.
After a round of hugs, Mrs. Obama joined the conversation, imparting knowledge about applying to college, navigating financial aid, taking tough classes, and even about the missteps she took as a college freshman. The students listened attentively, supported one another, and remained shocked that Michelle Obama was actually visiting them.
By the end of 2016, the First Lady had visited three schools and invited one class to meet her at the White House. She made it clear to her staff that her first priority as a former first lady and new full time resident of Washington, DC, was to continue meeting with students, her new neighbors.
Each visit has been unique. Some students want to know what it is like to live at the most famous address in our country. Others want to know what advice she would give to them about overcoming fears and doubts. All of them ask to take a picture, and Mrs. Obama always obliges.
She wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day with young women, so DC Chancellor Antwan Wilson arranged for her to meet with a group of students—some of whom had recently immigrated to the United States—at Cardozo Education Campus. They spoke for about an hour, starting with a discussion about their school, with one student sharing that Mrs. Obama had given her the courage to speak up in class and to start an anti-bullying campaign. The girls took Mrs. Obama’s advice about going to college and remaining true to their dreams. And, as always, she took a picture with the students.
To learn more about our movement, particularly our upcoming College Signing Day on May 5th, go to www.bettermakeroom.org. And follow us on Twitter at @ReachHigher and @BetterMakeRoom, and on Instagram at @ReachHigher2020 and @BetterMakeRoom.