As first lady, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with young people all across the country about education. I’ve heard about their hopes of going to college, getting good jobs, and one day starting families of their own. And I’ve also heard about the challenges they’re facing—the rising costs of tuition, their overstretched school counselors, and the insecurities and fears that come along with being first-generation college students.
My message to these young people is that while all of us adults—teachers, administrators, and policymakers—have to do a better job of giving them the best schools and opportunities for their future, at the end of the day, they also need to step up and take responsibility for their education themselves.
On her experience as a first-generation college student at Princeton University, Michelle Obama wrote:
It was really a culture shock for me. When I first arrived at school, I didn’t know anyone on campus except my brother. I didn’t know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings. I didn’t even bring the right size sheets for my dorm-room bed. Once I discovered the campus cultural center, things started to turn around. I started making friends, and the staff there understood what I was going through and helped me when I was frustrated or when I was too embarrassed to ask a question of anyone else. And soon enough, I realized that I had the support structure and community I needed to succeed in college.
So my advice to other first-generation students is to realize that the transition to college is going to be tough—and when it is, you’ve got to make sure to reach out for help. You’ve also got to remind yourself that you absolutely have what it takes to overcome whatever obstacles you’re facing.
You’ve already shown such grit and determination just to make it to college, and those skills will serve you well as you work to complete your education.
That means going to class every day, setting their goals high, and working like crazy to achieve them. That’s been the story of my life and my husband’s life, so when I talk to these young people, my hope is that they see that our story can be their story, too—as long as they’re willing to dedicate themselves to their education.
Early last month, I officially gave this effort a name and an aspiration—my Reach Higher initiative. And that’s really the goal: to inspire young people to reach higher to complete their education beyond high school so that they can own their futures. We’re focusing on things like financial aid, college counseling, academic and summer planning, and college visits. Our objective is to ensure that every student in this country understands how to pursue and complete their education, whether it’s at a traditional four-year college or a community college, or via a professional certificate or degree.
We’re doing all of this because we know that these days, a high school diploma simply isn’t enough. To get a good job and compete in the global economy, our young people need something more. And that’s true for our country as well—we need a highly trained, highly educated workforce to compete in the 21st century. And all across America, we need communities that truly value and promote education for our children from Day One.
We need a highly trained, highly educated workforce to compete in the 21st century. And ... we need communities that truly value and promote education."
I saw the power of cultural norms around education in March, when I visited China. As I traveled the country, whether I was talking to kids or adults, whether I was in big cities or rural areas, I was struck by the strength and depth of people’s commitment to education. I heard about parents making unbelievable sacrifices so their kids could attend school. I heard about students studying day and night in the hopes of getting a good job or being accepted into a university. I know that that’s true in many other countries around the world as well.
And the truth is, it wasn’t all that long ago that our country was setting those kinds of standards for the rest of the world. A generation ago, America had the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. But today, we’ve dropped all the way to 12th in terms of young adults. That’s simply not acceptable, and that’s why my husband set his “North Star” goal—that by the year 2020, we will once again have the highest college graduation rate in the world. Already, through initiatives like Race to the Top, we’re seeing states and school districts across the country make real improvements for our kids, and today, our high school graduation rate is the highest on record.
But while we should be proud of these gains, we’ve still got plenty of work to do to reach that North Star. It’s going to take all of us to inspire our young people to reach higher. That means more parents pushing their kids and demanding more from their kids’ schools. It means creating more partnerships between high schools, colleges, and businesses so that young people can learn the skills they’ll need for their future careers. It means cultivating a new generation of world-class teachers and school leaders. And, of course, it means young people stepping up to take responsibility for their futures as well.
The good news is we know that all of this is possible. Every day, we’re seeing examples of communities stepping up to support their young people in places from California to Iowa to New York. A few weeks ago, I saw one of these efforts firsthand in San Antonio, where they were celebrating their fourth annual college week. I had a chance to speak at their college signing day, which is a huge rally with thousands of high school seniors who publicly announce their plans to attend and graduate from college.
But it wasn’t just the graduating seniors who were involved—everyone in San Antonio wears their college T-shirts on signing day. And all week long, the community holds college-application workshops for high schoolers and gives middle school students guidance and advice on getting to college. They even have prekindergarten kids create college-themed art projects, because it’s never too early to start talking about higher education. Everything they’re doing in San Antonio is helping to support the dreams of so many promising young people. They’re young people like Rocio Alvarado, a remarkable young woman I met on my visit. Rocio’s family came to the United States when she was a child, and they lived together in one tiny, crumbling room. Her father worked long hours for low wages, and when they needed money to pay for her mother’s medications, Rocio helped sell homemade tamales outside her school. But Rocio’s family believed deeply in the power of education, and they pushed her to study as hard as she could. So Rocio rose from English-as-a-second-language classes all the way to Advanced Placement classes—and next fall, she is heading off to the University of Texas at San Antonio to pursue her degree.
There are young people just like Rocio in every community in this country—young people with so much promise and so many skills like grit and resilience that will carry them to success. All they need is a little extra support from folks like us. So we’ve got to make the sacrifices and investments that will inspire every child to reach higher and give them an opportunity to fulfill their boundless potential. If we do that, then I am confident that we can give all our kids the bright futures they so richly deserve.
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as Michelle Obama to Students: With Hard Work, My Story Can Be Yours