In an emotional address that marked her final official remarks as first lady, Michelle Obama praised the nation’s school counselors on Friday as education “heroes” who help legions of young people find their way from uncertainty to prosperous, confident futures.
Flanked by the counselors of the year from every state at a White House ceremony, the first lady praised them for reaching into their own pockets to help students make ends meet, for sticking with students “in their darkest moments, when they’re anxious and afraid... [showing] them that they have something to offer,” no matter who they are.
In helping all students recognize and realize their potential, counselors enable them to see that “they have a place in this country,” Obama said. “As I end my time in the White House, I can think of no better message to send to young people. ... Know that this country belongs to you, to all of you, from every background and walk of life.”
Students need to know that no matter how humble their beginnings, a good education and hard work can make anything possible, including becoming the president of the United States, Obama said. She urged students to get a good education so they’ll have the skills of critical thinking and clear expression to help them “be part of the national conversation” and “be a positive force in your communities.”
Young people will certainly encounter obstacles on that journey, the first lady said, but she urged them to remember “the power of hope.” Her voice wavering, Obama recalled how her father, as he rose every day to go to his job
at a water plant, nurtured the dream that all of his children would attend college.
“That’s the power of hope,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. Counselors standing behind her wiped their eyes, too. “That’s my final message to young people as first lady. It’s simple.”
The first lady is widely known for giving education—particularly equitable access to higher education—a high profile during her time in the White House. She’s taken countless opportunities to point out the role that counselors can play in shaping students’ paths to college, and she moved the School Counselor of the Year award ceremony to the White House in 2015 to draw more attention to it.
Friday’s event was part of her Reach Higher initiative, meant to encourage all young people to obtain some kind of postsecondary training after high school. As part of that work, Obama made a video with performer Jay Pharoah, in which they rapped about the benefits of college. The first lady also launched the Better Make Room campaign, which seeks to use social media and other direct outlines to young people to reach them with messages about college.
Obama has used star power—her own and that of her celebrity friends—to get her message across whenever she can.
Just before her appearance on Friday, the chief of the Reach Higher initiative, Eric Waldo, led a panel discussion for a roomful of counselors and students assembled at the White House. It featured Connie Britton, the star of the current television show “Nashville,” but who also played an uber-supportive counselor in a small-town Texas high school in the now-defunct series, “Friday Night Lights.”
“It was my honor to be able to play a counselor on television, to show how important that support can be for students who don’t have any other options. ... Children have nothing without opportunity and support and encouragement,” Britton said.
Another member of the panel, Verlando Brown, who was the first in his family to attend college, and now holds a graduate degree and runs a Baltimore nonprofit that supports first-generation college-goers, said he owed his success to his high school counselor, who “saw greatness” in him when he doubted his own abilities.
Two Obama administration secretaries of education—the current one, John King, and his predecessor, Arne Duncan—were also on the panel to plug President Obama’s work to improve high school graduation rates, make college more affordable, and financial-aid easier to apply for.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.