School & District Management

First Lady to Tap U.S. Students in Education Equity Campaign for Girls

By Evie Blad — August 25, 2015 4 min read
Michelle Obama hugs Sohang Vean, a high school student in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The first lady was in Cambodia in March to promote Let Girls Learn, her effort to remove obstacles that keep 62 million girls around the world from attending school.

First lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative was the subject of a recent Education Week interview with her chief of staff, Christina Tchen. The first lady wants to enlist students and teachers in U.S. classrooms to help promote educational equity for girls around the world. Peace Corps volunteers in 11 countries, ranging from Albania to Uganda, will complete projects designed by local communities to help tear down barriers that keep girls out of school. Globally, about 62 million girls are not in school because of sanitation, transportation, poverty, and other issues, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“None of us would ever accept anything less for our own daughters and granddaughters,” Obama said in a June speech in Washington. “So we have to ask ourselves, why would we accept this fate for any girl on this planet?”

The Peace Corps work joins efforts by USAID and the U.S. Department of State to address girls’ education issues. U.S. teachers can involve students through free lesson plans and correspondence with Peace Corps volunteers, Tchen said. Students can use an online toolkit to raise funds to support individual projects posted by Peace Corps volunteers, such as sending girls to empowerment camps or helping to construct a bathroom at a school.

Tchen expanded on the vision of Let Girls Learn in the interview with Staff Writer Evie Blad. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the first lady get interested in addressing these issues?

First lady Michelle Obama listens to presentations and visits with students at a high school on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia, in March. She was in Cambodia to promote her education initiative Let Girls Learn, an effort to lift barriers that keep more than 62 million girls around the world from attending school.

Tchen: She sees it in her own life, how important education was ...

And she, like so many in the world, was moved by [education advocate] Malala [Yousafzai] and what happened to her, and what happened to the girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Seeing young women who ... really have their very lives threatened by going to school and yet they have that unquenchable desire to go is something she was moved to try to do something about.

What are some of the things that are keeping girls out of classrooms? It’s not just political resistance, right? There are some practical things as well.

Tchen: Absolutely. What we find is that it varies community by community.

In many parts of the world, there is not free education for everyone; you have to pay to go to school, and a family that’s poor will more likely use what money they have to send their son to school than to send their daughter to school. They also need the daughter to stay home and do labor, to help out, so she’s more valuable to the family as a source of labor.

In some places, it’s a simple lack of sanitary facilities. Girls are trying to go to school ... when they’ve got their period, but there’s no facilities for them so they can’t go. In some places, there’s no safe transportation. We met some girls in Cambodia who bike to school an hour in the dark. It’s a whole range of issues.

Why aren’t people in the U.S. more engaged with these issues? Is it a lack of understanding? Is it that they don’t know how to get involved?

Tchen: I think it’s both. As often happens with global issues, 62 million feels like a really big number, and it feels hard to understand how you can have an impact.

This project is so exciting because a middle school in Southern California can go online and see how their funds get used to send 50 girls to a girls’ empowerment camp or to build a school in a village.

It really does provide that very direct impact. You really can have an impact village by village, girl by girl.

Teachers have a lot on their plates, like new standards and new state tests in many places. What’s the Let Girls Learn elevator pitch for teachers? Why should they make room for something like this?

Tchen: I think it’s a great opportunity to give real-world impact and life to what is otherwise a very remote world-studies program or geography lesson or, you know, an African-history lesson. This relates very directly to topics that I know are getting taught in schools around global issues and history.

What better way to get kids engaged in, say, Asian history, than to also say, “This is what’s happening today in Cambodia.” I think it’s a real exciting opportunity to bring into the classroom in a very real way these issues and actually get kids motivated to do something about them.

Many schools are also focused on helping students build social competencies. What can U.S. students gain from this beyond the content knowledge of the individual lessons?

Tchen: One big piece, and the first lady has talked about this, is that we hope kids in the United States will get inspired to rededicate themselves to their own education as they learn about the challenges that these girls around the globe are facing. Secondly, I think this is a great way to be sure that our students grow up to be global citizens. ... That value of being connected and caring about other parts of the world is a value they will carry with them into adulthood.

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as Michelle Obama to Tap U.S. Students in Equity Campaign for Girls

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